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Strategic planning for the management business.

Strategic Planning for the Management Business

In the words of that sage adviser Yogi Berra, "You've got to be careful if you don't know where you're going because you might not get there."

It is all too easy to get so involved in the day-to-day fire fights of the property management business. Developing a periodic strategic plan for your management business helps provide a vital long-range, macro vision. A strategic plan will help your organization gain the focus, commitment, and discipline to do those things essential to survival and prosperity.

What is strategic planning?

The strategic planning process consists of an overview of where your organization is today, where you want to go, and how you get there. This planning need not be expensive and, in most cases, can be done with in-house personnel. At other times, the process may require the assistance of an outside facilitator to help keep the planning on track.

Strategic planning gives common direction and purpose to an organization. Just like a ship without a rudder, a company without a strong sense of direction may wander aimlessly. One of a manager's primary responsibilities is charting an organization's strategic course and guiding this group toward the accomplishment of that vision.

A strong strategic plan also sets firm organizational goals, objectives, and guidelines, which help employees understand their roles within the group.

The planning process

The first step in the strategic planning process is deciding who should attend structured planning meetings. Those responsible for implementing the strategic plan should have a voice in putting the plan together. Pride of authorship is an important part of gaining commitment from those who will ultimately determine the success or failure of the plan.

However, logistics and the process of interaction among the people involved necessitate limiting the number of participants to approximately 20 people. In larger companies, it is possible to have an executive-level planning committee and as many sub-committees as are necessary to involve all of those who will be able to make a contribution to the plan. Each sub-committee, in turn, contributes in its field of expertise.

In the first years of strategic planning it is preferable to limit the committees to upper management, then expand the number of people and committees as the expertise in planning grows.

The next step is to select a facilitator, who will guide the planning group through the planning process. The facilitator's purpose is to direct and enhance the process, not to provide input to the plan. A qualified facilitator has the following characteristics:

* Familiarity with the process.

* Lack of familiarity with the property management industry. A facilitator from outside the industry can concentrate on the plan and not be distracted with providing input to the plan.

* No conflict of interest with the planning group.

Prior to the planning work, the facilitator should be made familiar with the organization and the planning group. Areas to be covered in this education should include:

* The recent financial performance of the organization.

* Members of the planning group.

* Any important subjects which need attention in the strategic plan, but which might not come out in subsequent discussions for one reason or another. Some companies have "sacred cows" - subjects which are off-limits. These should be identified up front.

Our firm has successfully used the treasurer of our parent company in this role. He does an outstanding job and his fee is as many rounds of golf as he can play in four days.

It is preferable to conduct the first planning meeting away from your regular place of business. This eliminates the distraction of telephone calls, interruptions, and other nuisances. Additionally, it is advisable to hold working sessions the first part of each day and have group recreation activities such as golf, shopping, or other outings in the afternoon. It has been my experience that this leisure time is as valuable as the meeting time because it promotes open discussion and creative thinking on the many topics to be considered in the planning process.

Prior to the first planning meeting, it is advantageous to have the participants review some background information which will better prepare them for this session, including:

* A review of past years' financial performance versus objectives.

* A review of prior strategic plans.

* An inventory of each of the company's key competitors along with an assessment of the strenghts and weaknesses of each. This should include an appraisal of what your company can learn from each competitor. Each member of the planning team should be assigned one or more competitors to research.

* A definition of those external factors that could influence the organization. Assign members of the planning group to review the potential impact of each of these factors on the overall company. These so-called environmental factors include the political, social, economic, and technological factors which are outside of the control of the organization. An example of one such environmental factor would be the impact on the company should tax laws affecting real estate change.

The first planning meeting

Next, the first of two planning meetings is held to gather the participants for group discussion and interaction. You should begin by defining where your organization is today. This is done through consideration of the following:

* Mission. What is the mission of your company? What is its reason for existence? In many cases, this will be a difficult question to answer. However, it is very important to clearly define this purpose. Although this is the first step in your meeting process, it is quite often the most difficult to agree upon. Do not proceed to subsequent steps until this mission is clear and agreed upon by all.

Although the mission unequivocally states the company's reason for being, it also answers the participants' questions of, "What is expected of me?" and "Where is this company going and how will I fit into that picture?" The mission should be reduced to writing as concisely as possible. One-sentence mission statements are the most preferable as they are less likely to be ambiguous. In any event, the mission statement should not exceed two paragraphs.

* Policies and beliefs. The policies and beliefs of the company should be spelled out and reduced to writing. The policies represent the "thou shalt" and "thou shalt not" guidelines which all members of the company are expected to follow and exhibit externally.

The beliefs are those internal values which are important to the company. This is an opportunity to document things which top management erroneously believes everyone understands.

* Strengths and weaknesses. An inventory of the company's strengths and weaknesses should be written down. Be thorough and tough in this assessment; all organizations have positives and negatives. The greatest shortcomings, those which could seriously damage the organization if unresolved, should be noted for future reference.

* Environmental factors. The environmental factors which were previously identified should be considered by the group. What are the potential impacts on the organization which could be caused by these factors? This step requires substantial brainstorming because it sometimes involves the consideration of far-reaching hypothetical situations. Those environmental factors which could have serious consequences for the organization should be flagged for future consideration.

Additionally, as time goes by, if you see certain environmental factors heading in a different direction than was assumed in the plan, a review and revision of the implications of these changes should occur.

* Competitive analysis. Each of the company's key competitors should be reviewed with the group. This is a valuable exercise because it exposes the group to other successful firms that may have different methods of operation. This process often leads to ideas that will improve the planning group's organization. You should consider what your competitors do better than you, and how you might be able to take advantage of this knowledge.

The next step in planning is to decide where you want to go. This is done by setting organizational objectives. The planning group should establish organizational goals and objectives, which will provide strategic direction for the company. Because these goals are the fundamental part of the strategic plan, a great deal of thought, insight, and debate should go into this process.

Each goal should be specific, measurable, achievable, reachable, and time related. Strategic planning is no place for ambiguity. These objectives must be so definite that every person in the organization will understand them.

This is the point where consideration of the time frame for the strategic plan comes up. I have seen plans where the time horizon ranges from one year to twenty-five years. You should consider the nature of your business, the volatility of your business environment, and your ability to foretell the future in establishing your plan's time frame. Initially, a window of five years or less is recommended for those who are less experienced in strategic planning.

Finally, the question of "how do we get there" needs to be answered. Specific action plans need to be formulated which will enable the company to meet its organizational objectives, capitalize on its strengths and opportunities, correct the most serious deficiencies which were identified in assessing organizational weaknesses, and address the most important environmental factors to the extent possible.

This process should focus the limited resources of the company on the most vital issues, those that will make a difference in organizational survival and prosperity. Once the necessary topics are established, members of the planning group are delegated the task of developing an action plan for one of these areas to bring back to the group at a later date.

Action plans contain the "who". "what", "when", "where", "how", and "at what cost" information which will lead to successful completion of the assigned task. Each action plan need not be completed between the first and second meeting, but each should out line what action steps will take place over this time. Some action plans may take years to complete.

Each of the steps necessary for completion should be determined and a completion date assigned so that progress toward completing the entire action plan can be measured. Specificity will help build accountability amongst the participants.

The second meeting

A second meeting should be held approximately two months after the first session to finalize the details of the strategic plan. Similar to the prior meeting, this session should be held away from the normal place of business.

The first purpose of this meeting is to summarize the first session. The mission statement should be re-examined to be certain that it clearly represents the basis for the company's existence. It may be that the statement needs revision based on additional knowledge which has been gained since the first planning meeting. The importance of a strong and clear mission statement cannot be overstated.

The policies and beliefs should be considered to be certain that no important items have been omitted. The strengths and weaknesses should be reviewed and any additions, deletions, or modifications should be made. The environmental factors should be covered once again, considering any additional factors or implications which might impact the strategic plan.

The second and primary purpose of this meeting is to review, discuss, and amend the action plans which were assigned in the first session. This is a very important process as the action plans which are accepted will serve as the vehicle to put the entire strategic plan into effect.

Each action plan should be carefully examined to ensure that, if this plan were accepted, the organizational goals established earlier would be accomplished, the identified opportunities would be capitalized on, and the most serious weaknesses and environmental factors which were previously established would be addressed.

If the total of all of these action plans does not address these priorities, either more or different action plans are in order. The organization's objectives may also need to be changed or more clearly defined.

The entire plan should be summarized for the planning participants. Before adjourning this session, the group should reach a consensus and make a commitment to complete the strategic plan over the planning period outlined.

Following this session, a book containing the entire strategic plan should be provided to each participant and distributed throughout the organization. A looseleaf binder works well for this purpose because it can be updated.

It does little good to develop a comprehensive strategic plan and then not share this information with those who will ultimately determine the success or failure of the plan. Employees love to be knowledgeable on the goings-on of company affairs, and by educating people on the company's strategic plan, you can solicit the active participation of more employees in the successful completion of the plan.

As time goes by, periodic follow-up should occur to make certain that the execution of action plans is proceeding on schedule. Because there is usually an extended amount of time between formal strategic planning meetings, people have a tendency to procrastinate. Obviously, this is a practice which should be avoided.

Benefits of strategic planning

Strategic planning is an invaluable tool, which is all too often overlooked by property management companies. Among the many benefits derived are:

* Those participating in the planning process establish a bond with both the company and their co-workers. This bond builds loyalty and corporate culture, two important elements of job satisfaction.

* Organizations have a chance to see the entire forest, not just the closest trees. This is distinctly and refreshingly different from the daily crises which seem to be so much a part of the property management industry.

* Participants are committed to the strategic plan because it is their plan, not some directive handed down from above. This personal involvement also means that people feel accountable for completing their portions of the plan. Commitment, not authority, produces results.

* A benefit is derived from the "Hawthorne" effect. These landmark studies of the 1930s emphasized the importance of workers' attitudes to job performance. As determined by this famous motivational study, job performance is likely to improve simply because employees and their opinions are considered.

* Strategic planning develops a framework for employee self-management. Would you consider it worthwhile to have employees who show self-initiative and pre-emptive behavior? By building a strong figurative "fence" with a strategic plan, you empower your people to roam on their own within that fence, accomplishing their job assignments.

Establishing these parameters is much preferable to tying one end of a rope to an employee's neck and the other end to a stake driven in the ground, allowing employees to venture forth in the job until they go so far as to choke themselves at the end of the tightened rope.

* It forces the organization to face its most important strategic and competitive issues, no matter how unpleasant or difficult they might be, rather than procrastinating on the tough questions until a crisis occurs.

I think you will agree with me that there is no genius or mystery in the strategic planning process. Rather it is good, common sense applied in a thorough, systematic manner. But then, isn't that what the property management business is all about?

John T. Gray, CPM [R], is president of Summit Management Company, AMO [R], as well as a general partner in Summit Properties, a North Carolina real estate development firm. He is responsible for the leasing, management, and maintenance of all of the residential properties managed by this company.
COPYRIGHT 1989 National Association of Realtors
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Gray, John T.
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Date:Sep 1, 1989
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