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Where Do you Start with Strategic Planning?

Updated: May 2, 2022

AUTHOR: Jessica Lim National Director Practice Management – Commercial Litigation & Construction at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP (BLG)

Your firm is about to embark on a strategic planning process. Where do you begin? How do you ensure it’s successful? What does success look like?

The strategic planning process is complex. It’s a windy path, amorphous and about making choices. Unlike the majority of business projects, strategic planning may encounter more twists and turns. And while there are certain lead indicators that you’re on the right track, as John Sandrelli, Dentons Vancouver MP, put it “you don’t know until three years after the fact if you’re successful.”

This article is focused on firm-wide strategic planning; however, these concepts are transferrable to function, practice and client team planning.

Strategic planning starts with engagement

The strategic planning process as defined here includes four stages:

  1. Engagement;

  2. Formulation;

  3. Execution.

This article sets out key actions within the engagement stage; where firms prepare to have committed resources, informed leadership and engagement throughout.

Committed Resources

First, dedicated support

At the outset, appoint a business professional to commit time to support and drive all four stages of the planning process. The amount of time depends on firm size, number of practice areas and how committed leadership is in seeing it through. At a minimum, this person will:

  • possess strong business acumen;

  • understand the strategic planning process;

  • demonstrate strong communication skills; and

  • be a highly organized project manager.

The person will centrally co-lead, alongside the firm’s leadership, and manage all that follows in this article and subsequent stages.

Decide if an external consultant is required

Consider whether a strategy consultant will add value or if you can find internally the following required skills and resources:

  • ability to objectively facilitate;

  • constructive challenge;

  • diversity of thought;

  • industry insights;

  • proprietary data; and

  • ability to engage.

As Julia Hayhoe, legal strategy consultant indicated “a great consultant will provide constructive challenge.

Internal or not, the job of the senior strategy professional is to “facilitate the creation of strategy, coordinate the creation of strategy, and ensure the consistency of strategy,” as indicated by strategy guru Roger Martin.

John Sandrelli reported his firm had great success when their Canadian CEO led their most recent process. “She had the leadership skills to engage people in a process that was interesting, productive and effective.”

Engagement is key. We’ll come back to that.

Informed Leadership

Decide how to decide

Your decision-making process will impact your strategy and engagement so it’s important to be self-aware and have a systematic approach. Know how decisions were made and how they will be made.

To do so, it may help to consider “The Different Approaches Firms Use to Set Strategy,” published in Harvard Business Review. They are summarized as follows:

In other words:

  1. Unilateral – Low on process, low in input from others

  2. Ad hoc – Low on process, in high input from others

  3. Administrative – High on process, low on input from others

  4. Collaborative – High on process, high on input from others

Then consider how input is gathered and who makes the decision. The Vroom-Yetton Contingency Model is a great tool. It helps to identify the best decision-making approach for your situation by considering the five basic processes listed and pictured below.

  1. Autocratic-1 - Leader decides alone, without input from the team

  2. Autocratic-2 - Leader decides alone after reviewing input from the team

  3. Consultative-1) - Leader decides alone after sharing the problem and seeking input individually

  4. Consultative-2 - Leader decides alone after sharing with select people as a group and seeks input

  5. Group-based - Decision is made by the group after the leader shares the problem as a group and seeks ideas through brainstorming

Try discussing these at the leadership level and deciding how you will decide.

Define success

Agree on what success looks like to know if you’re on track. Success factors will differ firm-to-firm, but common factors for a partnership structure include the following:

Engagement - Indicators can include whether the team reviews pre-reading materials, does their homework, and actively engages in discussion.

As Michael Parent, Deloitte Strategy Consulting, National Professional Services Industry Leader, said “you feel success when you’re going through the process and you can see the visible consternation.”

Saying no – This indicates a strategic choice has been made. Confirming what you will do is somewhat easy. Agreeing on what you will not do is more challenging but will help to keep the strategy focused and on track for the longer term.

This is an example of where the constructive challenge can help you to remain on track.

Buy-in – A plan with insufficient buy-in risks execution. As Tony Macveen Managing Partner of Hall & Willcox pointed out “success is a strategy that’s meaningful and one people buy into.”

Manage and organize information

Documentation of information is essential for long-term efficiency and to “level the playing field for all involved”, as reinforced by the Association for Strategic Planning.

Develop a simple, practical system for all members of the team to efficiently access materials. Tailor to the different audiences and ways of thinking and working by using a combination of your document management system, Teams channels (as an example) and/or internal portal.

Engagement throughout

Create a diverse task force

The end-product and buy-in will be better if a diverse team is included and provides input throughout the process. Diversify by gender, age, practice, anticipated level of buy-in and consider including the business professionals from finance, business development and/or talent. Balance these choices without making the group too large.

Communicate the roadmaps

It is important for all involved to understand the strategic planning roadmap and agendas to help them buy-in, appreciate what is relevant and know how the pieces fit together throughout the planning process.

Communicate roles and responsibilities

You need to empower the team to actively participate. It may not otherwise happen organically, so make it clear from that outset what is expected of each person involved.

Structure for equal input

To get the most out of your team members, you need them to show up prepared and to participate. You also want to avoid anchoring on the first idea or the HiPPO effect, where the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion is the decision each time.

One simple tactic is to run a version of the Crazy Eights brainstorm process – whether in person or virtual. A version of this can include giving teams:

  • 2-5 minutes to download their ideas individually (digital or on paper)

  • 2 minutes to read and build on ideas of their neighbor (in person or not)

  • 1 minute to each to share ideas

Having run such sessions more than a dozen times including virtual formats, it really does work to generate balanced input from each participant.


Set your strategic planning process up for success and start with the engagement stage. Commit your resources, have conversations with leadership to decide how you’ll decide, and try different tactics to maximize engagement. And finally, watch that the team is engaged and have fun with it!

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