So far, we've written about how to create the perfect vision statement, as well as a set of great company values. Now we're going to show you how to start creating your actual strategic plan - starting with creating strategic focus areas.
This article is part of our mini series 'How To Write A Strategic Plan'. You can download our free 'How To Write A Strategic Plan' eBook which contains all of the articles from the series.
You can find the individual articles below:
- How To Write A Strategic Plan: The Cascade Model
- How to Write a Good Vision Statement
- How To Create Company Values
- Creating Strategic Focus Areas (This Article)
- How To Write Strategic Objectives
- How To Create Effective Projects
- How To Write KPIs
What is a strategic focus area?
Focus areas are the foundation stones of your strategy. They expand on your Vision Statement and start to create some structure around how to actually get your organization to achieve its goals.
Focus area meaning
Stay focused on delivering your vision, it's now time to move on to the specifics of our plan, starting with how to create strategic focus areas. As always, we'll start with a quick refresher on how our complete strategic plan will look:
In past articles, we've used the example of a bike manufacturer to illustrate aspects of a solid strategic plan - we'll continue that theme here. To recap:
“To be the premier bike manufacturer in the Pacific Northwest."
Our Focus Areas:
- Aggressive Growth
- Nation's Best Bikes
- Modern Manufacturer
- Top Places To Work
A common question we receive from organizations using our cloud system Cascade is 'How many Focus Areas should we create'? The answer is in the question.
How many things can you and your people realistically focus on at one time? In our experience, 3 to 6 is probably a reasonable range. Focus Areas should be easy enough to remember so that any employee you bump into in a corridor should be able to easily recap them.
Any more than 6 Focus Areas runs the risk of you being, well....unfocused!
One of the hardest things about creating strategic focus areas for your organization is deciding what to leave out. You probably have a thousand things that you want to achieve, but one of the key outcomes of this process is to refine these things down to those that really matter in the here and now for your organization.
The rule is, if an activity does not fit into one of your focus areas - it shouldn't be happening - at least not right now. Sure there may be 'emergency exceptions' here and there - but it's important to commit to the process of refinement wholeheartedly, so spend enough time creating your focus areas to ensure they cover the gambit of everything you want to achieve.
Creating strategic focus areas
To help you while creating strategic focus areas, we've devised the following checklist that by-and-large, all your focus areas should conform to:
1) No longer than 6 words each
Long winded strategic focus areas are an oxymoron - if you can't distill your focus into 6 words or less, keep refining it until you can - it needs to be simple and memorable.
2) Not too broad
Don't cheat by creating strategic focus areas that are too broad, like 'Be profitable'. Unless this really is a specific focus (e.g. for new startups) - this defeats the point of the exercise and doesn't help you to focus at all!
3) No jargon
Avoid ambiguous terms like 'maximize' or 'succeed' - state what you are trying to achieve as an outcome, not how you are going to do it.
4) No metrics
Conversely, it might be tempting to add specific targets or metrics to your focus areas - avoid this. Metrics will absolutely come into play for your plan, but not at this stage. Keep things high level for now, but still outcome focused.
Need extra inspiration to write your focus areas? Check out this list of the most popular templates in our strategy library, pre-filled with examples that will help kickstart your strategic planning process.
Key focus areas
In truth, when we distill the various focus areas of clients we work within Cascade, we can surmise that the vast majority fit into one of the following broad business objective categories.
If you're struggling for inspiration, think about which of the following categories you want your organization to focus on and start creating strategic focus areas from there:
- Expansion / Growth - e.g. Expand network to the Asia Pacific
- Revenue / Cost / Margin - e.g. Increase sales
- Customer Satisfaction - e.g. Repeat business from customers
- Compliance - e.g. Zero regulatory issues
- Innovation - e.g. Launch new product lines
- Engagement with a Stakeholder Group - e.g. Engage with our community
- Employee Happiness - e.g. Proud & Happy Staff
You may well create strategic focus areas that don't fit into any of the categories above, but hopefully, this list gives you a good starting point.
The methodology is not dissimilar from ones such as the Balanced Scorecard and most other strategic frameworks for that matter.
Linking focus areas to your vision statement & values
The key outcome that we're trying to achieve when creating strategic focus areas, is to realize our Vision Statement. Ask yourself, if you succeed on each of your focus areas, will you realize your Vision in full?
If your gut tells you 'no' - then you've got a couple of options. Either revisit your focus areas or revisit your vision statement. Either approach is valid - one of the key rules around creating our vision statement was to incorporate an element of pragmatism (not too much though!).
If your focus areas encompass the entirety of what you think your organization can realistically achieve (even with any growth that forms part of your plan), and they still won't realize your vision - don't be afraid to go back a couple of steps and make some tweaks.
When it comes to aligning our strategic focus areas to our company values, this is equally important albeit for a different reason. Well written company values should encompass our desired organizational culture.
Area of focus examples
Our culture is the environment, or if you prefer the enabler for our activities. There are no hard and fast rules about how company values and focus areas should fit together - but a couple of obvious examples might be:
(Value) Energy - [Focus Area] Expand our business internationally
(Value) Empathy - [Focus Area] Responding to Customer Feedback
(Value) Continuous Learning - [Focus Area] Staff Training & Empowerment
In much the same way as for your Vision and Values - we would strongly encourage you to involve your key team members in the process of creating strategic focus areas.
As always, the more involved people are in the creation process, the more empowered they will be to deliver them. There are many ways to do this, from running Focus Groups, issuing Surveys and simply being responsive to ideas and suggestions as they come up as part of business-as-usual.
However, nothing beats a culture of open and honest communication where such discussions occur naturally as a result of people's pride and passion for the organization.