A Hierarchy for Effective Strategic Planning

The Language of Strategic Planning

I love wordsmithing. Playing with words to simplify and clarify ideas is something I find challenging and satisfying. I often benchmark clever copywriting and corporate communications that is on brand and has a unique voice. In my experience, carefully chosen words can break through the clutter and get your target audience’s attention.

When I begin a strategic planning exercise for my clients, I start by defining the anchors of the plan: those words that help to outline strategic direction. Before launching a planning exercise with your organization’s leadership team and Board of Directors, check in to see if everyone is starting from the same page. Chances are, there’s room to refine the language, sift through the differences, and come up with shared definitions so that everyone is rooted in the same foundation.

Strategic Planning Hierarchy

I am a big fan of starting with Why? Why does your organization exist? Why does your team show up at work each day? As Simon Sinek has shared: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”. That’s always a great place to start.  Typically, “why” comes from the founders who got together to solve a problem, then decided: “That’s it! That’s our spark”.

Strategic Planning is a forward-looking exercise, so being clear on the Vision for the organization comes next. A Vision is not something right in front of us, but is typically a far-reaching idea that pulls people together toward the future we’re trying to create.

A Mission is what we do. It’s the work we are signing up for each day to move toward the vision. It’s incremental, it may shift over time, but if we don’t focus on our mission, we can’t achieve the vision.

I think of Values as an organization’s gut check. These are not ideas that change from year-to-year. Values shape the soul of the organization. Values are an important tool to attract and retain the right people to join your team and operate cohesively.

A client recently added Guiding Principles to its planning hierarchy.  These were identified as consistent themes that were brought up in their annual planning discussions. These were pulled out and elevated to become Guiding Principles and provide an enduring direction for the planning process.

The Goals are more specifically used to define what the organization wants to achieve, and are defined within a specific time frame. I write Goals in present tense so that it is clear what we want to achieve and how we define success.

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” Antoine de Saint Exupery

Strategies break down the high-level activities that might be required to achieve a goal. Like a team’s game plan, they may need to be adapted if the playing field shifts due to internal or external forces.

Actions can be quite specific and may be written into a strategic plan using priority and sequence. This helps to break down steps needed to move the dial forward, make progress and ultimately, acheive goals. I find that detailed actions are best outlined in Operational Plans with direct linkages to the Strategic Plan.

Strategic Planning Definitions

VISION: Where are we going? What is the future we are trying to create?

MISSION: What we do. A filter for what your team puts focus and energy into every day.

VALUES: How we behave. What is consistently important as an organization; a gut check.

GUIDING PRINCIPLES: Provides collective and enduring direction for strategic planning.

GOALS: What we want to achieve as an organization. How we know we’ll be successful.

STRATEGIES: Our game plan to achieve the goals.

ACTIONS: Specific tactics that may be prioritized to deliver on strategies.


Does your team use the same definitions for planning? Check in. Building consensus on strategic priorities can only happen when we speak the same language.

As 2022 winds to a close, has your organization reviewed progress on strategic priorities? Is it time for a refresh of your strategic plan?

Contact us today and reserve a full day planning session for your team. Lock in an early December date to ensure your team closes out 2022 with clarity, purpose and renewed focus for the new year!


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