Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Strategic planning for individuals and families, Part 1

This is part of a series of articles, which may be found at the following links, and should be read in numerical sequence:

In my articles about personal security and self-defense, emergency preparation, economic hard times, and a number of other issues, I've emphasized the need to think ahead, have a plan, and work towards implementing it.  However, a large proportion of the replies I receive indicate that a lot of people simply don't know how to plan.  They've never been taught the conceptual framework that allows us to figure out what we want to do, then move towards implementing it, step by step.

To help remedy that, I'd like to offer a series of short articles on how to draw up a strategic plan.  These techniques can work for anyone in any situation.  They work for a military unit, a small business (or a large one, for that matter), an individual, a family . . . any and every situation where individuals have to work out what to do and how to get where they want to be.

There are many planning techniques available.  Follow that link to see a huge range of them.  I think that's often part of the problem;  we get lost in a sea of techniques, so many of them that we don't know which one to choose.  I'm therefore going to suggest one of the older techniques I know, one that's fairly simple and cuts to the chase without getting too convoluted.  We'll examine each stage, then apply each stage to a particular problem to see how it works.

The technique I recommend is nicknamed P.O.S.T.  The acronym stands for Purpose, Objectives, Strategy, Tactics.  In brief, it works like this:

  1. Your PURPOSE is what you want to accomplish.  It should be stated in one sentence, the shorter the better.
  2. An OBJECTIVE is a stepping-stone to achieve your PURPOSE.  Each one is, in effect, a purpose in miniature, dividing a bigger goal into 'bite-size' segments.
  3. A STRATEGY is the approach you adopt to achieve each OBJECTIVE.  It speaks in general terms rather than specific.
  4. A TACTIC is a specific thing you're going to do to implement a given STRATEGY.

We start at the top.  What is the PURPOSE of our exercise?  This needs to be short, pithy, and easily understood by everyone involved.  It's also a yardstick against which anything and everything we do can be measured.  That's an important word, because if something can't be quantified, it can't be measured;  and if it can't be measured, then it can't be assessed.  We should be able to look at any activity and ask, "How is this related to our purpose?"  If the answer isn't clear, perhaps we need to re-think our approach - or stop doing that particular thing altogether, because it's wasting time that could be used more productively.

Some purposes - many of them, in fact - can't be measured in and of themselves.  They have to be measured in terms of the objectives that must be met in order to fulfil them.  For example, according to Clausewitz, war is the continuation of politics by other means.  Therefore, a defense force might have as its purpose:  "To implement the political will of the government by military means."  That's not very measurable, is it?  However, that encompasses several lower-level objectives, such as winning wars, providing disaster relief, aid to other nations, and so on.  Each of those objectives can be measured;  and to the extent that all (or none) of them are achieved, so the purpose of the organization will (or will not) be achieved.  Therefore, to define the objectives is also to define (and, if necessary, to refine) the purpose.  It's a repetitive, circular process, possibly with many iterations before both aspects are finalized.

With that in mind, here are a few actual statements of purpose (or mission) from different organizations.

Section 3062 of Title 10 US Code defines the purpose of the US Army as:
  1. preserving the peace and security, and providing for the defense, of the United States, the Commonwealths and possessions, and any areas occupied by the United States;
  2. supporting the national policies;
  3. implementing the national objectives; and
  4. overcoming any nations responsible for aggressive acts that imperil the peace and security of the United States.
You can see immediately that it's very unwieldy.  It's not one sentence, but several, and each sentence would have to be measured according to different norms and standards.  I submit that it's a very poor statement of purpose, but not a bad outline of some (but not all) of the objectives needed to achieve a purpose.  Clausewitz would probably lump all of them together under the overall purpose of "continuing the politics of the government by military means".

What about big business?  Until 2003, IBM's mission statement (which is as close to a corporate statement of purpose as it had) read:

At IBM, we strive to lead in the creation, development and manufacture of the industry's most advanced information technologies, including computer systems, software, networking systems, storage devices and microelectronics. We translate these advanced technologies into value for our customers through our professional solutions, services and consulting businesses worldwide.

Those terms are certainly measurable, but not always easily, and I think there are too many of them.  A lot of them are more like objectives, or the purpose of a specific sub-division, rather than an overall corporate purpose.  Furthermore, after 2003 IBM changed its mission statement.  It became much more wishy-washy and less focused - more 'politically correct', if you will.  The company's results have suffered accordingly.  You can read one interesting analysis of the company's strategic plan at this link.

Small businesses can be less ambitious and more focused in their statement of purpose - and the more focused they are, the bigger they can grow.  For example, Amazon.com has this mission statement:

Our vision is to be earth's most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.

I really like that statement of purpose.  It's short, direct and to the point, and can be measured using a number of metrics.  Using it, Amazon's gone from nowhere in 1994 (the year it was founded) to becoming, in 2015, the largest retailer in the USA by market capitalization, eclipsing even giant supermarket chains like Walmart.  That blunt, pithy statement of purpose has, I'm sure, helped to focus the minds of everyone at Amazon and helped them to achieve those stellar results.

I can already hear readers complaining, "That's all very well, but I'm not an army or a big business!  How can I develop a personal plan, or one for my family, that will help me/us achieve what we want?"  I can only point out that Amazon.com began as nothing more than an idea in the mind of Jeff Bezos.  He developed a plan to make that idea happen and let it grow.  The result is what you see before you.  That same process can help each and every one of us develop a personal and a family plan.  (Note that usually the two will go together.  It's no good for an individual to develop a personal plan that ignores his or her family's priorities;  and it's no good for a family's plan to ignore the aspirations, interests and capabilities of every one of its members.)

Tomorrow I'll consider family and individual statements of purpose, both overall and for specific ambitions or conditions.  From there, we'll start building them out.



Anonymous said...

Really good example of a mission: Medtronic. In 1960, the company was struggling financially and was unfocused. Earl Bakken sat at his kitchen table and sketched out a plan to convince investors to stick with him.

The result was the Medtronic Mission. Every new employee is given a bronze medallion with the "short mission" on it by a company executive (used to be Earl Bakken himself). The URL below has an image of the medallion.



To contribute to human welfare by application of biomedical engineering in the research, design, manufacture, and sale of instruments or appliances that alleviate pain, restore health, and extend life.

Objective 1: (Notice the last sentence)
To direct our growth in the areas of biomedical engineering where we display maximum strength and ability; to gather people and facilities that tend to augment these areas; to continuously build on these areas through education and knowledge assimilation; to avoid participation in areas where we cannot make unique and worthy contributions.

Objective 2:
To strive without reserve for the greatest possible reliability and quality in our products; to be the unsurpassed standard of comparison and to be recognized as a company of dedication, honesty, integrity, and service.

Objective 3:
To make a fair profit on current operations to meet our obligations, sustain our growth, and reach our goals.

Objective 4:
To recognize the personal worth of employees by providing an employment framework that allows personal satisfaction in work accomplished, security, advancement opportunity, and means to share in the company's success.

Objective 5:
To maintain good citizenship as a company.

deborah harvey said...

thank you .

Inconsiderate Bastard said...

If I may....there's a lot of info available on Project Management, including the PMIBOK - the Project Management Institute Book of Knowledge - as well as a number of easier to digest works, and what you're talking about here, Peter, is at its base "managing a project."

I'll agree a mission statement referencing metrics is critical; on my IT projects I always got full buy-in from the upper management, and the funders, developers, supporters and users around the philosophy of "what does this project have to accomplish to be defined as successful" concept, and built, first, a mission statement on that, and second, a realistic timeline with milestones; without that it's extremely difficult to measure anything, from funds release to procurement to accomplishment of steps toward project completion. Microsoft's Project Management software is excellent for that but perhaps a bit more complex than is needed.

A couple of tips: When laying out milestones do not forget to include celebration points to commemorate reaching significant intermediate objectives, especially on long projects. People need pleasant mission reinforcement events to remind them why they're doing all this work, and; each project has a transition point when the project completes and the mission changes to one of ongoing support. In prepping that could be "take a 5-day breather at the beach when we've established one year of stored food per family member."

To that last point, there comes a "switching point" in a project where it's complete, as defined by the project plan, and goes into "support and refinement" mode. In IT projects that's ongoing software upgrades, hardware replacement based on age and training of users and techs new to the system. With preparedness it could be "replace all AR-15 springs and extractor at 5K rounds, re-barrel at 10K" or "try one new freeze-dried recipe each month." And, IT support - the unseen gremlins in the computer room who keep everything running - require training on those software upgrades, similar to attending a good AR carbine class every 12-24 months.

There's more, but this is too long already.