Let’s get straight on strategic planning

Jun 04, 2023

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Don’t forget that the real purpose of this exercise is to have something meaningful that everyone in the business can get behind.

There are so many different approaches to strategic planning in the AEC business. Some firms do it in a single day with a small group of owners and a facilitator in a dark conference room. Other firms have four-day retreats involving hundreds of people at a resort. In some firms, the founder or principal writes it up before they have even started the company and that is the plan in use today. And then some firms do nothing in writing at all.

The truth is, any of the above approaches can work. The key is having something meaningful that everyone in the business can get behind. And there are clearly a number of ways to arrive at that conclusion.

A good example of what I am talking about was in a movie I watched recently, Air, with Mark Wahlberg, Ben Affleck, et al. It was all about the story of how Nike pursued and ultimately created a partnership with Michael Jordan. A number of times in the movie, Phil Knight’s “10 Rules for Success” are cited. These rules were simple, but they were the guiding principles Nike was run with – and “simple” is the key word here.

Most of the strategic plans I see from AEC firms these days are getting way, way too complicated. They are too long, have too many numbers people don’t understand, have too many tasks on the “do” list, and use way too many buzzwords and cliches that turn people off. Simple is the way to go.

Focus on what you are good at. Know what kinds of clients you are going after. Specialize. Come up with new service offerings your competitors don’t provide. Come up with a bunch of new ways to market yourself because what you used to do may not work so well now. Figure out how your firm can be the most responsive firm there is to calls or emails, or problems on projects.

Know how large you want your company to be by a certain point of time and lay out your plan of attack to get there. Don’t kid yourself that you want to stay the same size. You are either going up or going backward. Backward kills morale. And don’t forget about your people. So many owners of firms complain about how difficult it is to find people or to have their people do what they want them to, yet most plans don’t really lay out what the firm will do in substantive ways to attract and retain the best. They just show labor as a dollar amount on a spreadsheet. That’s crazy.

Talk about your plan with your people. Boil it down to what’s meaningful. Make the plan real by tracking your progress toward your goals and sharing that with everyone. Don’t just do the thing and set it on a shelf.

Your business plan doesn’t have to be a huge exercise in futility. It can be a meaningful document that actually guides the behavior of everyone in the firm, and keeps the company moving toward its goals to be a better, more successful organization. Anything worth doing in this business requires a team. The business plan is one tool to help you get everyone rowing the boat in the same direction. Don’t forget that that is the real purpose of the exercise! 

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at mzweig@zweiggroup.com.

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.