Developing a multi-year strategy is critical to driving an organization's long-term success. However, securing approval and buy-in from internal stakeholders, such as leadership teams and board members, is often missed as a key step within the strategy planning process that has a distinct set of considerations. In this article, we will outline approaches and tactics to effectively communicate, build support, and demonstrate credibility of a new strategy.
At its core, a strategy is a communicable plan designed to maximize and sustain the most important outcomes of an organization. If the communication of a strategy is weak, the strategy is itself weak. Thus, gaining approval for a new strategy is often rooted in effective communication and stakeholder involvement, more than it is in "knowing the right answer".
Before seeking approval: Building a credible strategy
1. Before strategy planning, identify key stakeholders
Begin by identifying who the key stakeholders are. These are the individuals or groups whose support is crucial for the success of the company strategy. Stakeholders could include executives, department heads, team leads, board members, or even specific influential employees within the organization. Understanding their interests, concerns, and expectations can help tailor engagement (and ultimately, buy-in) efforts effectively.
2. Start strategic planning with clear outcomes (aka objectives)
A multi-year strategy should be rooted in the outcomes you want to achieve. Begin by defining these strategic objectives, making sure they are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. This provides a solid foundation for developing the initiatives and tactics that will drive the strategy.
Examples of objectives/outcomes are:
- Reach $200M in runrate revenue
- Attain a $100M valuation
- Shelter 50,000 homeless annually
It's imperative to get alignment from all stakeholders about what the objectives are, as early as possible in the process. Strategic planning is a logical workflow that is rooted in the objectives, so a good deal of downstream disagreement and approval friction can be avoided by making sure every relevant stakeholder, leader, and board member is on the same page about where the organization should be at the end of the strategy's time horizon.
3. Develop a prioritized list of strategic initiatives
Through a rigorous process of strategic planning, involving structured strategic planning workshops and internal and external research, identify the initiatives that will have the greatest impact on achieving the strategic objectives. Prioritize them based on their potential impact and feasibility. This prioritization helps ensure that the organization focuses resources on the most critical initiatives—resources are finite and ultimately, a strategy is a high-level resource allocation exercise.
Consider involving key stakeholders in the strategy development process as much as is possible (and productive). This could include brainstorming sessions, strategy workshops, or feedback rounds. Involving stakeholders not only leverages their insights and expertise but also fosters ownership and commitment to the strategy.
Once you've arrived at a set of prioritized, multi-year initiatives, check them against the following 4 components of a cohesive and bold strategy:
- Funding: Acquiring necessary capital to accomplish all strategic initiatives, whether through fundraising or operating cashflow
- Foundational: Organization-wide improvements to enable execution of both “business-as-usual” and expansions/bold, risky initiatives
- Core execution: Continuation of already-successful core operations, or operations that have already been irreversibly committed to
- Expansion and bold risks: New products, services, geographies, and markets, building on core competencies but ultimately having meaningful failure risk
4. Test the credibility of the strategy
Ensure that the proposed strategy is robust by assessing it against a comprehensive checklist of criteria. This should include factors such as cohesion, prioritization, achievability, accountability, comprehensiveness, research, robustness-to-uncertainty, risk management, adaptability, and simplicity.
When this exercise is complete, it will be possible to communicate these criteria as benefits and rationales for why the strategy is strong.
5. Write a compelling Strategic Statement
A Strategic Statement is a tool that can facilitate the effective communication of your strategy.
Summarize the top strategic opportunities into a single, cohesive sentence or two—this is the Strategic Statement. This statement should be simple, cohesive, and communicable, serving as the cornerstone of your internal communication materials. Adapt and wordsmith it so it appropriately resonates with your unique employees and stakeholders.
Use this simple Strategic Statement to express the proposed strategy to internal teams, leadership, and board members.
This Strategic Statement should outline your primary objectives and the key initiatives you plan to undertake to achieve them. For example, if an organization aims to significantly increase its service to the homeless population over the next three to five years, the Strategic Statement might read something like this:
Within 3-5 years, we will be sheltering 50,000 homeless annually by “Doubling Down” – focusing our inbound efforts and shelter capacity in key geographies, and massively improving operational efficiencies there.
6. In communication materials, tie the strategy to the original strategic outcomes/objectives
Reinforce the connection between the strategic initiatives and the outcomes (objectives) that were defined and agreed upon at the start. This will help ensure that your strategy remains focused on achieving its overarching objectives, and will make the communication much clearer.
7. Develop an investment forecast and illustrative set of milestones
Create a plan that outlines the specific steps, milestones, and timelines for each strategic initiative. This will help demonstrate how your strategy can drive goal-setting and accountability across the organization. However, until approval, this set of milestones is illustrative, and will change if initiatives change.
8. Create materials and communications, tailoring for each stakeholder
Know your audience. Use stakeholder mapping techniques to understand the influence and interest of your stakeholders. This can help you prioritize your stakeholder engagement efforts and tailor your communication strategies.
Think of all stakeholders in terms of their needs. What does this stakeholder (or group of stakeholders) need? What priorities are set by their managers, partners, or customers? How can different elements of the proposed strategy alleviate their issues or accelerate their priorities?
Not all stakeholders have equal relation to a strategic plan, and may need to be engaged differently. High-influence, high-interest stakeholders, for instance, might require more intensive, personalized engagement.
Here are ways to maximize the impact of buy-in efforts with different stakeholders:
- Vary your message for the audience: Develop a communication plan that includes clear, concise messaging, and tailored content for different stakeholders.
- Address unique concerns or objections: For each stakeholder, identify and address any potential concerns or objections they may have. Be prepared to provide evidence, data, and examples to support the strategic initiatives and demonstrate their credibility.
- Tell a believable story: Use storytelling techniques to make your strategy more engaging and relatable. Share success stories, case studies, and anecdotes that illustrate the impact of your strategic initiatives and show how they contribute to achieving your strategic objectives.
- Leverage presentations: Presentations are a powerful tool to communicate your strategy visually and verbally. Use clear, engaging, and concise slides that outline your strategic objectives, initiatives, and implementation plan. Remember to focus on the benefits and impact of the strategy, answering the key question: "What's in it for them?" Utilize storytelling and data visualization to make your presentations more compelling and persuasive.
- Use multiple communication channels: Don't rely solely on presentations and meetings to build support for your strategy. Use multiple communication channels, such as emails, intranet posts, newsletters, and social media platforms, to reach your stakeholders. Consider creating a dedicated strategy communication hub where stakeholders can access strategy documents, updates, and FAQs.
9. Leverage champions
Identify, train and empower champions within the stakeholders—those who can advocate for your strategy. Test the interest and appetite of all stakeholders as you tee up strategy review sessions with them, and plan to leverage the most aligned and excited ones.
Champions can play a crucial role in building support at different levels of the organization. Equip champions with the knowledge and resources they need to communicate the strategy effectively to their teams and peers.
10. Set and schedule the necessary meetings
Determine the meetings (or email/direct communications) with stakeholders necessary to discuss the strategic priorities, answer questions, address concerns, and gather feedback. These could be one-on-one meetings, team meetings, town hall meetings, or strategy workshops. These meetings not only keep stakeholders engaged but also provide an opportunity for you to refine and improve your strategy based on their input.
These meetings and touchpoints should be planned out ahead of time, and scheduled as early as you can, to secure time on calendars. The most influential stakeholders for strategic planning are often the ones with heavily blocked calendars.
10. Be prepared to adjust the strategic priorities, if appropriate
Reviewing the strategic plan with stakeholders will necessarily bring in new feedback and input. This should be viewed constructively, not destructively. Making slight adjustments, particularly in wording, to a set of strategic priorities is often acceptable in order to secure wide support of a strategic plan.
However, if there is a large discrepancy between the stakeholder's perspective and the proposed strategy, the following questions should be asked:
- Root cause: Does this stakeholder disagree with an initiative? If so, do they disagree with the previous step of the strategic planning process (eg the quantitative prioritization scoring, or the research process, or the Strategic Objectives, or even the Mission)? If so, center the discussion around that early step, which is where the root of the discrepancy lies.
- Scope: Is this stakeholder's perspective applicable to the holistic strategy or just a component of it? Weigh stakeholder input in accordance with its scope.
11. Continuously measure, assess, and adapt the strategy
Demonstrate commitment to fresh and relevant strategy by establishing a regular review process. This could involve annual strategy reviews or more frequent adjustments based on new insights and data. This is critical for ensuring the strategy is agile and resistant to uncertainty.
Keep stakeholders informed about the progress of your strategic initiatives. Regular updates not only maintain stakeholder engagement but also demonstrate transparency and accountability. Celebrate milestones and successes, but also honestly communicate challenges and setbacks.
Securing approval for a multi-year strategy is essential for driving organizational success. By following the steps outlined in this article, you can effectively communicate your strategy, gain buy-in from a strong coalition of key stakeholders, and ensure that your plan is robust, credible, and likely to succeed in its implementation. Remember, a well-communicated strategy is the foundation for achieving your organization's long-term objectives and sustaining its growth—and building support for a strategy is a continuous process. To learn more, watch Gaussian's introductory videos to the strategy planning process, or find out more about some of our strategy planning services.
Photo by Scott Trento.