Re-energizing strategic planning in the family business

It is commendable that many business-owning families take the time, spend the money and make the effort to formulate a strategic business plan and annually revisit it. Unless all family members embrace the wisdom of this exercise and remain committed to carrying out the well-defined goals the family has identified during the planning process, this can be a difficult and tedious process.

Holding the planning session off-site and hiring a facilitator to work with the family to revisit, evaluate and revamp last year’s plan can incur great expense. Some family members begrudgingly attend. Others may sit glumly at the table silently fuming about taking their weekend for a process they don’t enjoy. Moreover, normally the same few family members take on the somewhat arduous task of gathering the business information/financial data as well as designing a meaningful agenda and lining up a competent facilitator for this annual exercise. Unfortunately, not all family members can appreciate the forethought and work that goes into making the strategic planning meeting a success.

Here are a few ideas to get more buy-in from family members who may not work in the family business, who aren’t very enthusiastic about the planning process, who aren’t willing to help prepare for the planning meeting, or who don’t ever participate during the planning sessions:

In advance of the actual date of the planning meeting, ask each family member to write an obituary for the family business that they will share during the off-site meeting. Writing in their own words, they can list what went wrong in the business and what caused its demise. In writing about the death of the business from a third-party perspective, family members can easily identify threats and weaknesses that can impact the business’ survival and merit further exploration. This can eliminate finger-pointing and playing the blame game, which sometimes happens when family members identify weaknesses in the family enterprise (often these come with a name attached to them).

Well before the meeting takes place, ask each family member to compose and share a press release announcing some grand accomplishment the family business has generated … in the year 2035. This creative exercise will uncover some of the opportunities and strengths of the family business. This informal assignment can unearth some terrific options for the business and can serve as a springboard to discuss new profit centers, marketing approaches, ways to motivate employees, or ways of approaching the bank. Again, written from the third-party perspective, it is a noncritical piece that lauds the family and directs attention to planning for a successful future. As various factors will create the celebratory announcement, no one person is selected as the hero or nominated to pull off a miracle in the family’s business.

These two exercises seem less daunting than participating in a formal “SWOT” analysis, and both of these activities may unearth some incredibly helpful observations when family members have enough time and encouragement to be creative.

You can also ask family members to cut out pictures and phrases from magazines and bring them to the meeting. Before launching the formal agenda, divide the family members into multigenerational groups. Each group has a poster board, scissors, a black marker and glue. For 30 minutes, each group will use some of the clippings to put together a montage that represents the group’s vision for the family business. The result is an interactive and visual exercise that gets the generations working together; engenders discussion about values, culture and legacy; and can result in composing a new, updated business mission or vision statement. This also can be a great time-saver because many planning sessions never get beyond revamping the mission or vision statement.

In each of these exercises, each family member is encouraged to present their own opinion and observation, and each family member can participate and share their ideas. In some instances, family members as young as 13 participate in the strategic planning sessions. In this kind of setting, younger stakeholders can learn as much as possible about the family’s business, irrespective of their long-range career plans. Additionally, the younger generation provides extremely unfettered and creative input on business goals, systems, employees, products, environment and other aspects of the family business.

As unorthodox as these ideas may sound, give them a try. By mixing in some fun, having time for family recreation and reconnecting on a personal level, you can re-energize the strategic planning process with new perspectives and greater participation. What do you have to lose?

Eddy, CFP, is president of San Diego-based Creative Capital Management Inc. and co-founder of the Family Business Forum at USD. She can be reached at Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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