Have you heard enough about the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series for the first time in 108 years? As a devoted lifelong Cubs fan, I sure haven’t, but I promise not to dwell on that for those who have had enough Cubs enthusiasm over the past few weeks. What I really want to talk about is how the Cubs positioned themselves to be able to realistically go after the pennant in the first place.
I recently wrote a blog post about the importance of planning for first-line managers. In the Cubs’ case, Joe Maddon and the team’s various bench coaches are the equivalent of the field managers who ultimately put together the right game plan each day, each week and each month to lead the team through a long, grueling season and to win multiple playoff series against some ridiculous competition.
But looking further back, this started with the vision of Theo Epstein, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations, and his team of baseball strategists. Much has been said about how Epstein and team made a series of brilliant, if not difficult moves to build the amazing level of young talent that’s now the cornerstone of the organization. And while the end result is nothing less than stunning—even Epstein thought that it would take a few more years to get good—the process was quite painful.
Epstein joined the Cubs front office before the 2012 season, and over the past four years, he and the team’s management made some late-season trades, swapping some of the team’s best players—Andrew Cashner, Starlin Castro, Ryan Dempster and Jeff Samardzija— for minor leaguers with plans to develop them into stars. The team was in a rebuilding phase, but as a Cubs fan, it hurt to have a losing team for that long, including one season during which we lost 101 games. (In stark contrast, the team won 103 games this year.)
There was, of course, a method to Epstein’s madness: He and his colleagues created a vision five years ago and executed that strategy year after year. They were thinking long-term, and they were patient. It all came together in the last two years when the Cubs went deep into the playoffs.
Why does this matter? Most of the companies we all work for or work with have never come close to this level of successful long-term planning. For most companies, long-term planning is an annual exercise that’s treated as such: a sojourn from our normal activities to fill out templates, create high-level forecasts and generally predict what might happen to the market in a few years. Unfortunately, these types of exercises don’t always help drive the organization toward the true long-term business strategy.
Typically, there are three things that you need to do to develop strategic plans that’ll actually help you achieve your objectives:
- Build a vision that all employees can understand and get behind. A strategic plan’s vision often is weak, too simple or not described well enough to mean anything different for your leadership and employees. We need to challenge ourselves and our leadership to really describe what the future might look like three, five or seven years out. What do we want to be? What do we want to do differently by that time? We can’t all win the World Series, but we can create a vision of how our organization will look different a few years from now.
- Map out a specific plan for at least the next year that will propel the organization toward the vision. For example, if you want to drive higher sales in a specific segment of the business, you need to define the key steps that the field team needs to take. This includes analyzing the accounts for key opportunities, developing the story on why your company should win the account, and defining the process to communicate the story to that account. In the case of the Cubs, each time Epstein traded a star away for a few prospects, he crossed future positions off of his list that he no longer had to go after.
- Follow through and continue down your vision’s path every year. Instead of running the same exercise each year with little connection to the previous year, why not adjust the process to spend time understanding how you’ve moved toward your vision through the checkpoints and where you need to adjust? Don’t change the vision each year. Instead, spend the time to evaluate the plan to achieve it. If something needs to be adjusted, adjust it. If difficult decisions need to be made, make them. If you need to unload your top talent to make room for the prospects who will help your team succeed down the line, do it. If you determine that you need to start over because your plan’s assumptions are so different from the base, that’s OK, too, but don’t start over just because there’s an annual strategic planning process.
If you find yourself part of the long-term strategic planning process, consider taking a different perspective this year and think about moving beyond the concept of following a mandatory, company-wide process for developing plans. Put yourself in Theo Epstein’s shoes and think about the long-term vision for your company, division or team. Figure out the steps that you have to take to get to that vision, and how you can stay the course year over year, building toward a victorious future—just like the Cubs.