To effectively lead a project, you must have a plan in place for how you're going to complete it. One of the best ways to do this is by developing a strategic plan.
Creating a strategic plan involves:
- Coordinating with all team members and your direct reports on your project's strategy for the year ahead.
- Using tools specifically developed to help you carry out the plan.
- Identifying the key elements of your work that will help you execute the plan.
- Identifying the right team members to lead each specific component.
- Getting approval from your organization's leadership to ensure it tracks with the company's overall vision.
Here's how you should approach each aspect of this process.
The benefits of long-term strategic planning
Strategic planning allows you and your team to assess your team's mission, where you're going, and what you'll need to do to get there. It's a way of collaboratively coming together to forecast what activities you'll plan to undertake in the coming year while ensuring they're all in line with what your company's leadership wants to accomplish.
It's also helpful for your individual employees. They no doubt have a set of key goals they have in mind for their annual performance review. If there are achievements built into that review (and incentives that come with it), strategic planning is a great way for them to see what they'll need to do to accomplish these objectives.
Assembling all project activities within one plan for your project also allows you to manage your team's workload. You'll see who has the most responsibilities and if anyone has an unrealistic set of tasks. If one team member has more responsibilities than another, it may make sense to offload several tasks from the busier person's desk.
Tools for strategic planning
The key ingredient for any strategic plan is a Gantt chart. The official definition of a Gantt chart is "a chart depicting progress in relation to time of projects, tasks, schedules, etc." In the case of a strategic plan, a Gantt chart would have all tasks within one chart, listed vertically. The expected time of completion for each task with the deadline would then be graphed out horizontally. It serves as a visual representation of your team's entire workload.
You can create a strategic plan without a Gantt chart, but it's not recommended. This tool gives you the ability to see when your team will be the busiest, as well as any deadlines that occur at the same time. Once you've assembled your first draft of your chart, you can then re-assess whether you need to shift tasks around to accommodate your team member's schedules. Having all the tasks in one place enables you to do that.
While Microsoft Excel gives you the capability to create a Gantt chart, it takes multiple steps. Opting for a project management software such as Microsoft Project makes it much easier to do. You simply enter your tasks and timelines for completion and the program auto generates the chart.
The elements of a strategic plan
Your plan's going to vary depending on what industry you're in, how big your team is, and what you need to accomplish. But by and large, several components of a strategic plan are going to exist for you no matter what type of work you do. Those include:
You'll likely separate your work into categories by individual projects. These can be broad (i.e. improving outreach, communications, budget management, etc.) or specific (meeting planning for an annual conference, development of a specific report, etc.). What you include at this level depends on how your team is organized.
You'll also want to include any major products or deliverables your team needs to develop over the course of the year. Again, this will depend on the type of work you do. These could be one-off deliverables or recurring items. For example, you may have a weekly email newsletter you send out to your stakeholders - in that case, you'd include that as a recurring deliverable. Larger, stand-alone projects would also be included.
Most of your projects will depend on the development of those aforementioned deliverables. In some cases, you may just have a key performance indicator (KPI) you need to achieve without a concrete result (i.e. "add 500 users to our email list"). In either case, you'll need to have milestones for each project and deliverable.
A milestone is a deadline set by your team for when you need to complete a task by.
Identifying project leads
If your team has multiple tasks or projects within your larger workstream, you may need to assign project leads. This is the person who will be responsible for seeing the individual project through to completion.
You may be able to identify this by the person's job description. Let's say one of your team's goals is to increase sales of a product by 20% for the fiscal year. If your team has a lead salesperson, they would likely be responsible for that.
In other cases, it may not be so clear cut. This is where you'll need to assess your team member's individual strengths and weaknesses to assign them responsibilities you think they'll be able to achieve. You'll also want to keep an eye on their overall list of duties to ensure you don't overburden them. This can hinder the completion of your team's projects.
Aligning your plan with your organizational goals
Finally, a key element of any strategic plan is making sure it aligns with your company's mission.
If you manage a team that is several rungs below the CEO or another high-level leader, your day-to-day responsibilities are likely much different than them. Even so, everyone at the company is working towards the same ultimate goal. That's why you should be sure that your team's strategy aligns with every senior-level person above you up the chain.
After you work with your team members to create your strategic plan for the year, you should vet the plan with the management team. It's critical to have leadership buy-in before you get started. Otherwise, you may start the year and find yourself having to course-correct once they express doubts over your team's direction.
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