CEOs and business strategists: if you haven’t started thinking about 2024 yet, now is the time. Many companies wait until December to start building or tuning their strategic business plan. This puts Q1 at risk because it can take three months to get priorities aligned. By jump-starting the planning process, you reduce business risk and accelerate your growth potential for the next 18 months.

1. Make it a priority

Not all companies invest the time and resources to build or update their strategic business plan annually. The excuses are common: “planning is overrated, we just need to execute”. “We’re working with reduced staff and I don’t have someone to lead the planning effort.” “Now is not a good time.” For many first-time CEOs, they may have never guided a cross-functional strategic business planning process before. They don’t know what the process or the final deliverable looks like. This creates a serious blind spot.

There are simple ways to alleviate these concerns. It starts by making a commitment to a formal cross-functional business plan created by the leadership team. This priority must be driven by the CEO. Without a formalized business plan to align all corners of your business, your company will experience unnecessary headwinds and slower growth.

The leadership team has been out of sync for a while. With the arrival of our new CEO, we have an opportunity to stop the chaos and get aligned on our strategic priorities. We just don’t know how to instigate a cross-functional planning process. –  Jack G, CRO

Read: 4 Tips for Driving Executive Alignment

2. Partner with business planning facilitator to be your coach, guide, and referee

Business planning can become highly emotional. When people feel that their turf is being challenged, they become territorial and defensive. This can quickly escalate and derail the process, damage moral, and lead to ineffective decision making. This is why using an internal facilitator is far less effective: they are already biased.

I am so frustrated being in meetings where the CMO and VP of Sales go head-to-head. I just zone out. – Amit V, VP of Product

To avoid this problem, CEOs benefit from hiring a business planning facilitator to guide the team forward. Your expert business planning facilitator will provide the following benefits. They:

  • Bring experience and expertise in the complete B2B business planning cycle.
  • Know how to structure a series of workshops to engage your team to constructively identify issues and drive alignment around business priorities.
  • Are unbiased as the leader of the planning exercises, thereby allowing all team members to engage equally.
  • Ensure the process and the workshops remain constructive and professional.
  • Reduce risk of ineffective business planning, guaranteeing that the process concludes with a meaningful document that includes action items, owners, and timelines.

3. Give the planning process time

Business planning is a journey, not a destination. You need more than one meeting. The process requires specific milestones and deliverables along the way. It can easily take between three to four months. Rushing the planning process creates risk. So, give your team time to think strategically about the four cornerstones of your strategic business plan:

  • Clarify (and ensure everyone can articulate) the company vision and mission statements.
  • Set clear corporate strategy guidelines so the leadership team is aligned on the criteria that will be used when making investment decisions.
  • Build a short-term and long-term product portfolio strategy that supports your company’s vision and mission.
  • Architect clever go-to-market strategies and marketing blueprints that map to the target persona, buyer’s journey, and take advantage of latest campaign best practices. Read: Marketing Campaign Development; The Marketing High Ground.

Mike was great to work with! Through his leadership and facilitation, our teams were finally on the same page. We won several big deals, and the entire marketing plan was executed. This increased our company’s valuation.  – Jamie B, CMO

When I guide executive teams in the planning process, we schedule a workshop for each of these cornerstones.  An overview of the four workshops is included in this article: Business Planning: How one CEO aligned his team and achieved a winning exit strategy

4. Embrace business planning as a team sport

Business planning requires collaboration. It is not about dictating an outcome. It’s about identifying opportunities, discussing possibilities, and acting as company leaders (not department managers). And this may surprise you: it should also be fun! We’re talking about the future. If we can collectively imagine it, we can achieve it.

One fun exercise I use as part of the vision/mission workshop is called, “Envisioning Success”. Imagine what the company looks like three years from now. Your company has achieved noteworthy success and it is on the cover of . . . (magazine, newspaper, online news outlet) . . . of your choice.

Each team then sketches on a flipchart the cover of this article:

  • What is the headline?
  • Accompanying graphic?
  • What is the story about?

I divide the leadership team into small groups. I give them 20 minutes to sketch the cover. Always, the first response I get is, “Mike, I’m not an artist. I can’t do this.” To which I reply: “You now have 19 minutes and 50 seconds.”

This is such a great ice breaker exercise. Immediately, there is a buzz in the room as creative interpretations of the future unfold. At the end of the exercise, each team shares their vision. What is most interesting to me as the facilitator is that every group but one will land on a vision that is somewhat aligned.  But, one vision will be unexpected. This is when things get interesting!

These flipcharts are posted throughout the entire planning process. In fact, many teams keep them visible long after the process has concluded.

Be a team. Be supportive, curious, and open to ideas. And, have fun along the way.

5. Hold people accountable

Your strategic business plan means nothing if your team does not own it. It is imperative that careful notes are taken. Most importantly, action items with owners and timetables are required. This is the only way to ensure your business plan comes to life. Once your strategic business plan is complete, you’ll need to identify proper KPIs (key performance indicators) to track. And, you’ll need to assign specific OKR (objectives and key results) to every employee. Everything is connected!

As an executive facilitator, I never let a workshop conclude without clearly documenting and assigning next steps. I always ask for complete buy in before we adjourn. The designated action owner verbally repeats the action item and the next steps they have agreed to take. This keeps everyone honest. It dramatically reduces the risk that someone will say “yes” in the meeting, but then take no action (or go in an opposite direction after).

At the next meeting, the action item owners update the team on their progress. (Peer pressure is a natural driving force.)

6. Validate your business plan with your Customer Advisory Board (CAB)

A CAB is an executive-level customer sounding board. This elite group of customer decision-making leaders comes together to talk about the future of the industry, how their needs are changing, and what you can do to help them succeed. As such, a CAB is a perfect place to gather their input, feedback, and advice on your business plan. As you explore possible investment scenarios, share these possibilities with your CAB. In turn, this customer input (along with other voice-of-the-customer tools you may be using) will be very helpful in further refining next year’s strategic business plan.

In reality, your CAB and strategic business plan are flipsides of the same coin.

Read: How to link your CAB to your executive planning offsite.

Visit: CAB Resource Center – a collection of the latest CAB and Partner Advisory Board best practices

About the author

Mike GospeMike Gospe is a skilled marketing strategist and business planning expert. He routinely acts as an Interim CMO helping B2B technology companies grow from $50M ARR to $100M ARR. He brings four decades of marketing expertise and leadership experience across demand gen, product marketing, and brand disciplines. He is also a Customer Advisory Board (CAB) strategist & professional facilitator, with more than 20 years of experience and 250+ in-person & virtual advisory board meetings under his belt. His CAB Resource Center, a website sharing a variety of CAB strategies and best practices, has become a trusted resource for CAB managers and executive sponsors around the world.