Strategic Planning for Startups and Small Teams

Slowing down to think about the future will ultimately help you move faster in response to dynamic conditions. 

While legacy organizations have to overcome years of inertia to implement a new approach to planning, startups and smaller teams often have the opposite issue—they’ve never done strategic planning before, either as individuals or teams. So it’s not surprising that:

  • They don’t know where to start. Without an established process or past experience to guide them, strategic planning can feel overwhelming and confusing.
  • They’re worried about the time investment. Immediate issues take priority, since the future can always be dealt with “later” (even if that day never comes).
  • They’re afraid to commit to long-term planning. They’ve already had to pivot frequently—why bother planning when the future will inevitably change?

But organizations that do commit to Adaptive Planning ultimately benefit from the flexibility and resilience it builds. Paradoxically, slowing down to think about the future will ultimately help you move faster in response to dynamic conditions. 

The good news is that smaller, startup teams already have many of the skills—like an agile mindset and iteration—that Adaptive Planning requires. Think of AP as a way to build on these good habits; a process that can grow along with your organization. To adapt it to the size and scale of your current team:

  • Think big picture first. If nothing else, your team needs a general sense of where you want to go. A creed and vision points the organization toward what is important, gives direction to the work, and answers the question, “Why are we doing this?” If you need an example of strategy at its simplest, take a look at what Tesla and SpaceX have developed for some very complex problems.
  • Reduce scope. Try reducing the number of bets your organization is making—the more bets you commit to, the more work will be generated. Make one bet the entire organization is oriented toward, or reduce the number of strategic pillars. 
  • Assign roles. Smaller teams can make the process more collaborative and inclusive when it comes to generating ideas for the future, but you should still have a few people who are really dedicated to the work. Ideally, you’ll have at least one person who’s thinking about strategy for the entire organization, as well as:
    • Rhythm Organizer: AP’s success largely comes down to the team’s willingness to reconvene and iterate on bets through the year. So make sure one person is responsible for keeping these meetings on the calendar. 
    • External Scanner: This role keeps an eye on developments in the news, customer needs, or anything else outside the organization that might impact the future. 
    • Internal Learner: This role functions as a roundtable facilitator, bringing parts of the organization together so that they may learn from each other, as well as seeking out feedback on what’s working and not within the organization itself. 
  • Accept discomfort. The first time any organization does anything, it feels hard. Since sensing is an inherent part of strategy, there’s an educational component to the process.  Lean into the discomfort that comes from growth.
Published August 29, 2021

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