Three Critical Questions for Strategic Planning

Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress;
working together is success.
Henry Ford

As a freshman engineering student, I remember vividly the day my professor announced we needed to know the answer before we performed the calculations.What in blazes does he mean? I thought to myself. Then he explained: if we don’t have an idea of what the answer should be when we start calculating, we’ll have no idea if we’ve gotten a reasonable answer at all. You know the adage: garbage in, garbage out. It’s a skill engineers have passed on to one another for centuries–does the answer I calculated make sense? It’s the same with strategic planning. If we don’t begin with the end in mind, and work the process mindful of the constraints we live with, we’re likely to get a glossy publication with high sounding words–but not an executable strategy.

There are plenty of strategic planning models out there, but before we even begin planning, we need to ask ourselves three critical questions. They will frame the strategic planning process, no matter what planning method we choose, and will help us understand the output of that process. The Three Critical Questions are:

  1. What is Our Mission?
  2. Who is on Our Team?
  3. What does Success Look Like?

Question 1: What is Our Mission?

Every organization has a mission. We provide a service or produce a product–but in neither business nor the public sector do organizations exist for no purpose. A solid understanding of the organization’s mission will underpin everything with a firm footing, but a misdiagnosed or mistaken understanding will send the team careening in the wrong direction. Mission statements aren’t static; they require maintenance and periodic re-evaluation. Furthermore, we need to write mission statements in clear language so there is a minimal chance of misinterpretation. Begin every strategy session with a review of the organization’s mission and ask: Does this still make sense? Is this really what we’re doing? Is this what my boss, our customers, and our stakeholders expect of us? If you can answer all of these questions to your satisfaction, you can move on to the next question.

Question 2: Who is on Our Team?

It’s not hyperbole to say we have teammates everywhere–even in places we don’t expect. When I was a young Air Force officer in the 90’s, Total Quality Management was all the rage. In a TQM training seminar, we competed with other teams to “manufacture” paper airplanes. By not recognizing either our supplier or our customer as potential teammates, we ended up losing the contest to another team that did. It’s a simple example, but building a network of teams as well as solid teamwork within your own organization is crucial to 21st century success. The world is far too inter-connected for any of us to operate as an “organizational island”–even the famously neutral Swiss cooperate with their neighbors and joined the United Nations. Therefore, when asking Who is on my team? look beyond the boundaries of the organization to partners, suppliers, customers, stakeholders, and even competitors. You might be surprised with whom you share a bond or a common goal.

Question 3: What does Success Look Like?

The last of the three critical questions is sometimes the hardest to answer. If we can’t define success, then all the mission statements and partnering agreements are for naught. We must be as precise as we can, and as honest as we can be about what we’re capable of accomplishing. Defining an end state that’s out of reach is just as useless as defining an ambiguous one. Be specific, reach a little, but above all be clear and realistic. One word of caution about vision statements: they are valuable as aspirational documents, but they are not a concise definition of success. To illustrate, compare the following two statements:

Vision Statement:
We want to be a world-class engineering company, providing the highest quality services on the world’s most pressing infrastructure problems. We want to be responsible stewards of our resources and foster a culture of respect both within our team, and with those whom we collaborate.

Success Definition Statement:
We define success as a 15% overall growth in a healthy company. Specifically: billable hours increased by 20% over last year, costs reduced by 10% over last year, and employee satisfaction ratings up compared to the 2014 employee survey.

See what I mean? Both statements are necessary for their purpose–one to help team members aspire to be better, and the other to give concrete goals to achieve–but they are not interchangeable.

Strategic planning is absolutely indispensable to any high performing team. To create a good strategic plan we have to start with the end in mind, and answer those three critical questions.

Originally posted on

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