One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree.
“Which road do I take?” she asked.
His response was a question:
“Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know,” Alice answered.
“Then,” said the cat,
“it doesn’t matter which road you take.”.”
~ Lewis Carrol, Alice in Wonderland
If we don’t know where the company is going, or its goal, all programs, projects, and initiatives may seem to have the same priority. A fundamental part of the effectiveness of projects is that they should be aligned with the company’s strategy.
Many organizations are aware of this reality. During November and December, they invest time and often external resources in planning exercises. They evaluate where they are and what they want to achieve next year. The problem is that they fail in the execution. Some fail to communicate these goals to the entire organization. Others start the year with great enthusiasm; however, as soon as the first stumbling block approaches, the day-to-day or what many of us know as “putting out fires,” the plan loses priority and importance. In a short time, this plan becomes just another document and is not revisited for the rest of the year.
The strategic plan must be achievable but challenging and remain alive and relevant. It must be communicated to the entire organization and must be the basis for decision-making. It must be passed on to operational objectives and revisited at least once a year. We live in a changing world where new factors happen every day. The plan is a guide but must be adapted to the organization’s or project’s new realities. Hence the importance of its review.
I remember when in November 2019, I worked on a strategic planning exercise with a client. We knew little of what COVID-19 would cause. At that time, there was a reality, and the strategic planning and projections for 2020 were made based on that reality. We would have found a practically useless document if we had waited until the end of 2020 to review the plan. On the contrary, when we did our review exercise, the plan was adapted to the current reality at that time. COVID-19 appeared as a threat identified in the analysis. Projects such as telemedicine, being able to move and measure an operation that was 100% virtual, and the health of the workforce became a priority.
COVID-19 presented many changes, but these exercises allowed us to sit down again with the drawing board and adjust the plan to the reality that was being lived at that moment.
There are several methods of strategic planning. SWOT Analysis is a very used one. Although it is very well known, I briefly explain it to benefit those unfamiliar with this type of analysis. It consists of documents in four quadrants; the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. The internal factors are documented above, and the external factors are below.
For this exercise, it is highly recommended that we have the following information at hand:
- Financial statements
- Results of operational metrics
- External news that can impact (positively or negatively) the organization
The SWOT Analysis is excellent because it gives us a portrait of where we currently are. The mistake of many organizations is that they finish the activity after completing this step. The next step is to transform this portrait to a strategy.
During my master’s degree in project management, Professor William H.A. Johnson, whom I later had the honor of inviting to a monthly talk at the Project Management Institute, Puerto Rico Chapter, showed us the missing link to this analysis; the TOWS Analysis. We must work on an action plan after identifying our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. TOWS helps us create the strategy that we will carry out with the factors we identify in SWOT.
The authors of the book “Project Strategy and Strategic Portfolio Analysis” detail how to work with this matrix and explain the following:
- First quadrant (SO or maxi-maxi): How will I use my internal strengths to take advantage of external opportunities?
- Second quadrant (WO or maxi-mini): How can I take advantage of external opportunities to overcome or improve my internal weaknesses?
- Third quadrant (ST or mini-maxi): How will I use my internal strengths to prevent or reduce the impact of external threats?
- Fourth quadrant (WT or mini-mini): What strategy can we develop to help us reduce internal weaknesses and prevent external threats?
After completing the TOWS, we convert these strategies into a work plan, potential projects, and executable actions. Dates are assigned based on the organization’s priorities. This process is worked on in the Annual Strategic Planning. It must be revisited at least mid-year to evaluate its progress and, if necessary, make changes based on the current reality.
The SWOT and TOWS Analysis is just one method of Strategic Planning, but others can be used for this purpose. As in project management, the key is communication and monitoring and controlling.
Did you work on a Strategic Plan for 2023 but still need to do your mid-year review? Is not to late. Organize a space with your team and discuss the status and relevance of the goals set in December. Did not work on a plan for 2023, and would like to know if you should wait until 2024 to start? Don’t wait; gather your team and work on a plan for the last months of the year. This process will also serve you when you perform this exercise for the following year. Remember, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail” ~ Benjamin Franklin.