Strategic Planning with Critical Success Factors and Future Scenarios

Acquisition , Strategic Planning Add comments

By Linda Parker Gates
Senior Member of the Technical Staff, Acquisition Support Program

Linda Parker GatesStrategic planning is a process for defining an organization’s approach for achieving its mission. Conducting successful strategic planning is essential because it creates a foundation for executing work, as well as setting the stage for enterprise architecture, process improvement, risk management, portfolio management, and any other enterprise-wide initiatives. Government organizations are operating in an environment of almost near-constant change, however, which makes it hard to conduct strategic planning efforts successfully. Moreover, when organizations do tackle strategy, they often get bogged down reflecting on the past or speculating on an uncertain future.  This posting describes recent work investigating and integrating techniques to improve organizational strategic planning.

For the last six years, my team in the SEI’s Acquisition Support Program (ASP) has been working on a strategic planning approach that incorporates two techniques that complement strategic planning, but are rarely integrated with it. The first technique, critical success factors, determines the handful of key areas where an organization must perform well on a consistent basis to achieve its mission. The second technique, future scenarios, allows organizations to explore the forces that are most important, yet least predictable to them. These techniques are used to generate robust strategies that will serve the organization well in several potential futures, along with early warning signs to understand how the future is unfolding.

We’ve piloted the integrated strategic planning approach in several government organizations with positive results. In one organization, we applied the approach incorporating both the critical success factors and future scenarios techniques in their entirety to help an organization create a five-year IT strategic plan. They were able to adopt a strategy that incorporated the development of a self-service customer capability (a strategy that was identified as robust given the critical uncertainties of the organization’s future), while continuing to pursue formal management of external stakeholders (a critical success factor). Without the integrated use of these techniques, the organization would likely have missed the opportunity that the self-service capability represented, and may have neglected or failed to align external stakeholder management with their strategic goals. Not only did the effort produce a robust strategic plan, but the enhanced process achieved other important—but intangible—benefits: strategic conversation among the leadership, data-based decision making, and increased communication across the organization.

One important feature of our strategic planning approach is that organizations can implement it in stages, at any level, and still realize benefits. Another organization we worked with implemented the enhancements over several annual planning cycles.  They have been able to see consistent and gradual benefits with the incremental implementation. It’s been gratifying to observe how the techniques complemented each other and expanded our clients’ strategic thinking.

In the newly published technical report Strategic Planning with Critical Success Factors and Future Scenarios: An Integrated Strategic Planning Framework, I combine established research in strategic planning, critical success factors, and future scenarios with our insights and lessons learned regarding the value and limitations of the integrated strategic planning framework. The report also highlights specific considerations for applying this approach in the context of strategic planning for information technology.

We plan to continue our work in this field over the next several years. Proposed areas of investigation include:

  • creating an integrated strategic planning process to support the integrated framework
  • connecting critical success factors and future scenario indicators with project indicators in the monitoring stages of an  integrated strategic management process
  • exploring how critical success factors and future scenarios can lead to nimbler approaches to strategic planning for use in an agile environment

Our experience over the past six years shows how critical success factors and future scenarios can significantly improve the depth of thinking and analysis in strategic planning efforts. By managing operational commitments and the uncertain future effectively, they also demonstrate their value in a strategic management (e.g., Balanced Scorecard) process. I welcome your feedback.

To download a copy of the report, please visit

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4 responses to “Strategic Planning with Critical Success Factors and Future Scenarios ”

  1. Ian Says:
    I am constantly asked to put together a value proposition for internal Application development departments, and then develop a strategic plan for these internal departments. The expression "True North" is gaining support, along with lean thinking initiatives, in the strategic planning dialogs that I have day in day out.

    I usually present the following (or similar) in response to the question of value proposition for IT, or the broader IS and application development function.
    The value proposition for internally used technology (including applications) revolves around the ability of IT to:-

    Reduce cost
    Increase flexibility
    Reduce lead time
    Increase the overall value of the output.....
    .....of the organizations business processes.

    This ties into the context (Customer Requirements) discussion in the CMMi Dev Requirements Development (RD) process area, in that technology value is inseparable from the context, i. e. workflow, in which it is used.

    An example from the Banking domain is the production of loan documentation. Cost reduction and lead time reduction are clear enough. If the document preparation is business rules driven (using technology such as IBMs Business Rules engine (iLog) then flexibility is increased. The final overall value of the output is not that common (as an IT enabler) but consider generating loan docs in electronic form, then the final customer may well consider this a true value add. The issues, for goal setting, are measurement, benchmarking, and demonstrating a move in the desired direction (i.e. increase flexibility) of the above enablers.
    Non-functional requirements , for example usability, supportability of the process, would show in the overall cost of the process (that is to be reduced) unless the customer considers them true value and then they show in the overall value output that is enabled by technology.
  2. Linda Parker Gates Says:

    I agree things get interesting with IT strategy because IT has become an organizational resource. The ultimate goal of IT is to demonstrate how IT can contribute to the success of the organizational mission. As a result, IT planning is becoming less about tactical management and much more about strategic decision making. The important thing with an enabling resource, as you say, is aligning it with organizational strategy.

    Because CSFs can be derived at any level of an organization, they can facilitate alignment by forming a bridge between strategic interests (industry and organizational CSFs) and the IS/IT planning function (division-level or operational CSFs). Scenarios can also be used to explore IT options, or IT-specific scenarios in alignment with organizational scenarios.

    I'm currently looking at ways to explicitly tie scenario indicators with project indicators and other measures derived from CSFs, which should illuminate the value proposition for IT.
  3. Thomas Says:
    I red your article with great interest. You wrote "Our experience over the past six years shows how critical success factors and future scenarios can significantly improve the depth of thinking and analysis in strategic planning efforts."
    Did you get any numbers which show the impact between success factors and strategic planning efforts?
  4. Linda Parker Gates Says:
    Thomas, the impact is qualitative and anecdotal to date. For example, one organization introduced CSFs and felt that they were able to get control of reactive tasks and create operational action plans that were aligned with CSFs and strategic goals. They were then able to make progress on strategic goals that had previously eluded them. Another organization using CSFs and future scenarios in an IT planning context, were able to vastly broaden stakeholder involvement in IT strategic planning through the CSF and scenario-planning activities. Their resulting strategic plan was praised by senior leaders in the organization not only for its breadth, depth, and alignment, but for the generation of early warning signs that they continue to monitor as part of the strategic goal-setting process.

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