Strategic Planning Tools

I think getting the plan formalized on paper helped us to actualize and make our thinking more concrete. We could look at it and say, this goes back to this on our plan.”

Anne Biberman, Fairbanks Concert Association

Good strategic plans use good tools

What tools do you need to build a solid strategic plan? We break down 5 key tools below listing what they are, why they’re important and how you can complete them as part of your planning process. Do you need specific action steps? Complete our strategic planning assessment. You will be answered by one of our team members with at least two specific actions you can take now to get a small taste of what a strategic plan can accomplish.

Which 5 essential tools are we looking at?

  • Visioning
  • Metrics/Charts
  • A strategic SWOT analysis
  • Affinity diagrams
  • Interrelationship digraph

To see how the tools integrate into a strategic planning model, click here. And to learn about the finished product and view a template of a completed strategic plan, click here.


What is it?

compassVisioning is just as it sounds, the process used to brainstorm then develop a desired long term vision for the organization. It answers “What do we want to achieve?”, “What will we look like?”, “Who will our customers be?”, etc.

Why is it important?

The vision is one of the key foundation pieces that guide your plan. Which strategic projects you choose is based on the vision you want to achieve. The visioning process is critical in helping leadership design a statement that is a realistic stretch for the organization. The end result of the process should be a statement that makes the leadership team gulp or sweat a little, but also inspires them to move forward with enthusiasm, not shrink back in trepidation.

How do you do it?

Visioning is a simple process, though the “wordsmithing” of the results takes some skill. Begin by asking the leadership team to envision the future 15-25 years down the road (choose a timeframe that is realistic for your industry). What are staff members doing? What do the offices look like? Who are your customers? What do they say about you? What has been accomplished that you are particularly proud of?

When the group has a clear vision of what that ideal future looks like, have each member write down a list of their essential pieces. While one person records the responses on a flipchart, white board or projector, have each team member share one piece of their picture, continuing round robin through the group until all the pieces are recorded.

Now for the tricky part Look at the picture you created and develop a statement that encapsulates those achievements. Here are some examples from the HBR article by James Collins and Jerry Porras “Building Your Company’s Vision”:

  • “Become a 125 billion dollar company by the year 2000” (Walmart in 1990)
  • “Become the Harvard of the West” (Stanford University, 1940s)
  • “Transform this company from a defense contractor into the best diversified high-technology company in the world” (Rockwell, 1995)

We recommend you read a copy of “Building Your Company’s Vision” for more information on creating an inspiring vision statement.


What is it?

Metrics and charts are the often ignored part of strategic planning because, let’s face it, few people truly enjoy “math”. However, to have a truly effective strategic plan, you need to know if your projects are, in fact, effective. Metrics and Charts for purposes of strategic planning are the measures selected to assess if a project is creating the impact intended when it was designed.

Why is it important?

There is limited time and energy for leadership to focus on strategic work in the course of completing day-to-day responsibilities. Therefore, having a metric that clearly shows whether or not the plan’s projects are delivering what they were chosen and designed to deliver is essential. It is how you know whether to move forward, shift gears a bit or stop a project altogether.

For example, if a project is selected to grow market share, track and chart market share related to the project to determine if it is going up. If there is no change, look to the project for modification in order to create the desired result. Similarly, if a project is designed to reduce errors, thereby decreasing customer complaints, then measure customer complaints. If errors are being eliminated, but complaints are not decreasing, then you have the wrong strategy. More digging and a reformatting of the project will be required to begin to reduce customer complaints.

How do you do it?

To learn more about designing and charting metrics, visit our Instrument Panel page, which contains information about designing metrics as well as several links at the bottom of the page to additional materials. You can also contact us, and we can step you through designing your first metric.

A strategic SWOT analysis

What is it?

A SWOT analysis is a strategic planning tool in which participants brainstorm, list and evaluate the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of and to their organization.

Why is it important?

In strategic planning, an effective SWOT analysis provides valuable information that can be developed into key potential strategic initiatives to grow the company or into internal projects to resolve challenges holding the organization back from its full potential.

How do you do it?

In the strengths and weaknesses portion of the analysis, focus turns inward. Have team members brainstorm and discuss what they see as the organization’s key strengths that give it an advantage in the competitive marketplace. Then have them brainstorm and discuss the weaknesses that are preventing the organization from moving forward at full speed. For example, a strength may be a proprietary process that is far ahead of the competition, while a weakness might be lack of marketing skill to get the process out into the customer’s hands. The team can turn a weakness into an internal project on the strategic plan (see The Importance of an Internal Assessment for more on this).

For the opportunity and threat portion of SWOT, leadership shifts the focus outside the organization to what it must contend with to survive and flourish in the competitive environment. Opportunities and threats come in many forms: new discoveries in technology, shifts in demographics, state or federal policy, a competitor opening or closing its doors. Once brainstormed, prioritize then map out the most promising opportunity(s) or most deadly threat(s) as projects on your strategic plan.

An affinity diagram

What is it?

Affinity means an inherent similarity or relationship. An affinity diagram is a tool for organizing a large number of items into similar categories so that it can be more easily “digested” and managed. It is an excellent strategic planning tool for organizing, grouping and combining a large number of potential initiatives or projects down to a manageable number.

Why is it important?

During the SWOT analysis, a large number of potential projects surface – both internal and strategic. The affinity process allows the teams to effectively group and combine those projects by their common characteristics. Typically, through using an affinity diagram, a team is able to reduce the number of potential projects they need to process and prioritize from an 35-50 down to 10-20.

How do you do it?

In our Vision Navigation process, we begin by writing all the potential projects on 3×3 sticky notes and placing the notes randomly on a flip chart pad. The team then gathers around the flip chart and organizes the sticky notes in columns of similar items. This process is completed in silence, forcing the group to really think about a potential project and what it involves. When one team member groups two projects as having a similar theme, and other team members cannot see that connection, the silence forces the group to think on a deeper level about the possible connections in order to see what that team member has identified. Through this careful study, the affinity process can bring a level of clarity to projects that simply defining them cannot. Once the team is satisfied and the sticky notes have stopped moving, the process is finished.

Interrelationship digraph

What is it?

An interrelationship digraph is an outstanding tool for prioritizing many potential projects in order to identify the essential few.

Why is it important?

The tool is designed to compare a list of problems, projects or opportunities, one to another, to identify those that are or would create the biggest effect or impact on the others. The theory is that if you fix a problem or capitalize on an opportunity that has influence on other problems or opportunities you get more “bang for your buck.”

hoshin_exampleHow do you do it?

Once leadership has completed their list of potential improvement projects or strategic initiatives and combined or grouped them using the affinity process described above, they can begin the interrelationship process. Arrange the sticky note projects that remain after the affinity into a square around your flip chart. Starting in one corner and working your way around the square, compare each potential project to all the others by asking two questions: “Is there a strong relationship?”, and “Which one causes or creates an effect on the other?” When there is no relationship, move on. When the relationship is not strong, move on.

For each cause-effect relationship identified, draw an arrow between the two with the arrowhead pointing toward the project being impacted or effected by the other one. When you have finished all the comparisons, count up the arrows going out of each project. Those projects with the most arrows out are the projects that would created the biggest positive impact if they were chosen for your plan.

Focus your efforts with a strategic plan

Is your organization aligned and moving as one unit toward a clear vision? Learn more about the what a strategic plan should provide here.

Would you like some one-on-one help? We would be happy to set you up with a free consultation phone call to get answers to specific questions not covered in this article. E-mail us or give us a call at 877-276-4414 to get started. We also encourage you to sign-up below to receive email updates whenever new strategic planning materials are added to our site.

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