Anne Phillipson, Director, People and Change Consulting Practice, Grant Thornton Northern Ireland

Anne Phillipson
Anne Phillipson

Over the years I have facilitated many strategic planning workshops for clients. ‘Vision 2020’ was a popular theme three to four years ago, as organisations looked to the new decade with optimism of clarity of perfect vision.

Little did any of us know that 2020 would bring anything but clarity!

That doesn’t mean that strategic planning is not an important leadership activity. However, rather than creating a step-by-step instruction manual for how to navigate the medium-term, a strategic plan should be viewed as a roadmap; knowing that detours, bumps in the road, and diversions are likely, as they are on any long journey, but the destination or vision provides the fixed point on the horizon that you are heading towards.

Some people think strategic planning is a dark art, where very senior executives lock themselves away in a room for days, until they emerge with the plan. Maybe in some organisations, that’s how it is done.

The flaw with that approach is that the plan reflects the experience and insights of a few, when it is much more robust if it includes the perspectives of many.

So where to begin? As with planning any journey, there are two critical pieces of information that Google Maps will ask you, “Where do you want to go?” and “Where are you now?”.

When creating an organisational roadmap, you must know where you want to get to, in terms of customers, markets, people, financials, etc. Then you compare that with your current situation, and you are left with the gap.

The gap then needs to be broken down into milestones; shorter time periods that make the large gap more attainable in smaller chunks. These milestones are like road signs, that let you know you are on the right path, and getting closer to your destination.

Because vision should always be aspirational and slightly out of grasp, the end goal will change as you get closer. Most organisations are no longer looking 10 or 20 years to the future; given the amount of uncertainty and change, a five-year goal is as far as most will look ahead. To even look five years into the future requires the insights of many.

That’s why strategic planning requires consultation and discussion with all departments and teams; to glean their ideas for where to take the company; what customers want, staff expectations, and the financials that are possible.

By engaging widely, not only will you have a better plan, but you then don’t have to sell the plan to your staff once it is complete – they should see their fingerprints all over it.

All those ‘Vision 2020’ plans will have had their purpose, regardless of the detour caused by the pandemic. And if the plans were created in the consultative process described, teams of people will help their leaders to adapt and modify the roadmap as the impact of the current crisis started to hit.

Yes, it was a bigger detour than we ever could have imagined, but it is still better to have had a plan than not. The destination will remain the point on the horizon, it just may take longer to get there.

For further information or advice, Anne Phillipson can be contacted at

Grant Thornton (NI) LLP specialises in audit, tax and advisory services.