I recently had a phone consult with a small non-profit on their strategic planning process. We talked about their mission and their vision. We talked about their goals and the innovative ways they wanted to reach those goals. We talked about their real challenge — building a plan to transform their vision into results. This isn’t an uncommon problem. I’ve always felt the biggest challenge in strategic planning isn’t coming up with an excellent strategy. The real challenge is bridging the gap between strategy and execution. So I introduced them to something I’ve used for years — the GOSPA planning framework.
You’ve probably never heard of GOSPA. I first learned about the GOSPA planning method a couple of decades ago when I was on the leadership team of a software startup. Our Chief Marketing Officer introduced it as we were building plans to grow the company. It proved to be very effective in helping us not only define what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it, but also in building out the detailed plan to achieve those ends. I’ve used it frequently since then in my business. I’ve used it with consulting clients in both non-profit and for-profit enterprises. I’ve used it with coaching clients for their businesses and their personal growth. I’ve taught it in entrepreneurship classes. Although not widely known, it’s a staple in my toolkit.
The GOSPA planning method is a simple five-step process you can use to . It consists of five steps — Goals, Objectives, Strategies, Priorities and Activities.
The GOSPA Planning Process
The first letter, G, stands for goals and identifying goals is the first step in the process. What do you want to accomplish? Before we go any further, let me clarify something. You’ve probably heard of SMART goals and been told that the best goals are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. That’s true. But goals in GOSPA aren’t SMART goals. We’ll get to those shortly. Goals in GOSPA are the qualitative, squishy goals that describe where you want to be or what you want to be doing or what you want to achieve.
If you’re a business, your goals could improve your profitability or your market share or entering a new market. If you’re a non-profit, your goals will align with your mission statement and achieving your vision. As an individual, start a new career or lose weight or live on a beach.
Spend some time thinking about who you are and where you want to be. Like any element of strategy, GOSPA is a team sport. You want to involve key leaders in your organization and stakeholders to define the goals that make sense to you and represent your shared vision. If you’re using GOSPA as a personal tool, talk to friends and family — the people you truly trust — to help you articulate your personal vision.
How many goals? That depends. A single goal gives you focus. But no person or organization is one-dimensional. For organizations, I use the Balanced Scorecard to provide structure. The Balanced Scorecard approach suggests we examine an organization from four different perspectives to help develop goals:
- Customer — The customer perspective asks how customers see you. Customer goals look at things like customer value, satisfaction, or retention.
- Internal — The internal perspective asks what you need to excel at doing. Internal goals look at things like efficiency and quality.
- Learning and Growth — The learning and growth, or organizational capacity, perspective, asks how you can continue to improve and create value. Learning and growth goals address things like human capital and culture.
- Financial — The financial perspective asks how you look to shareholders. Financial goals address financial performance.
Try to develop a goal within each of these four perspectives to ensure you address each of these key aspects of your organization. It’s okay if you don’t have a goal for each one. Better to have two or three goals meaningful to your organization than just checking the box. The perspectives provide structure to guide the conversation.
The second letter, O, stands for objectives and objectives are the quantitative expressions of your qualitative goals. Objectives are goals made SMART.
One thing I like about GOSPA is the distinction between goals and objectives. It seems more natural. We don’t start with SMART goals. We start with fuzzy qualitative expressions of what we want and we go through a process to make them SMART. GOSPA includes that as part of the process, and it works.
In this step, you will take each of your goals and define objectives that:
- Specific — Clearly define what you want to achieve.
- Measurable — Create objective criteria with which to monitor your progress.
- Attainable — Ensure that the goal is within your reach.
- Relevant — Your goal should further your long term vision.
- Time-bound — Give yourself a deadline by which to attain the goal.
You will need an objective for each of your goals. Should you have more than one? I frequently see multiple objectives when there are different measures or different time frames for achieving them. A goal to increase customer satisfaction might have an objective to increase a customer satisfaction (CSAT) score by 5% over the course of a year and one to decrease customer attrition by 10% over five years. Those are related but distinct. You can also add a different time dimension to the same metric — increasing CSAT by 5% over a year and by 10% over five years. In the next step, you’ll develop strategies to achieve these objectives. Different time dimensions provide the platform for shorter and longer-term strategies.
The third letter, S, stands for strategies and strategies are the qualitative approaches you will use to achieve your objectives. There are many frameworks, approaches, and techniques you can apply when developing strategies and this isn’t the place to explore them. What I can do is provide some guides to applying those approaches in the GOSPA model.
A first step in developing a strategy is to know your goal. The GOSPA approach to planning gives you this one for free. You start with not only a set of shared goals but clearly defined objectives before you develop strategies.
Next you need to understand yourself, or your organization, and your environment. You’ll assess your capabilities and your resources. You’ll catalog your strengths and weaknesses. You’ll identify opportunities and research threats.
With that background, for each of your objectives, ask: “What are all the different ways that we can accomplish this objective?” Brainstorming time!
Brainstorming is a common tool for creative problem solving and generating ideas. I know that you’ve used brainstorming in the past, at least informally. I will not spend a lot of time here talking about using it. You get it. We use brainstorming through the GOSPA planning process, so I want to refresh your mind on a few critical elements. Brainstorming combines a relaxed, informal approach to problem solving with lateral thinking; approaching problems not head on but from the side. It encourages people to come up with thoughts and ideas that can, at first, seem crazy. We can craft some of these ideas into original, creative solutions to a problem, while others can spark even more ideas. This helps to get people unstuck by “jolting” them out of their normal ways of thinking. Use your best brainstorming techniques with your planning group to develop a set of strategies to achieve your goals. Then you evaluate the strategies and identify the one or two best paths forward to accomplish each of your objectives.
The fourth letter in GOSPA, P, stands for plans. If you strategies are your approaches for reaching your destination, your plans are the turn-by-turn navigation instructions. This is where the rubber meets the road and is where many planning exercises fail.
Begin the planning processes by brainstorming every single thing you need to do to obtain your objective. Be as detailed as you can and leave nothing out. You may have to return to the list later if you identify a new task or activity. That’s okay. But you need to start with a list as complete as you can make it.
Next list the resources you need to complete those tasks. Who are the people you need? What knowledge or skills do they have to possess? What facilities, tools, or materials are necessary? What financial resources are required? If you don’t have one of those resources, you must add tasks to identify and obtain them.
Next step: sequence. What has to be done first? Which tasks depend on other tasks. If you need a resource to complete an activity and don’t have that resource, you need to finish acquiring the resource before you can start the activity. Identify the key sequential activities in your plan and make sure you start early enough to ensure you achieve your objective on time.
The last letter in GOSPA, A, stands for activities. These are the individual tasks to complete in executing the plans. Think of activities as the daily to-do list of the people working to execute the plan that implements the strategy that achieves the objectives that define the goal.
You identify your activities by breaking the steps in your plan into smaller and smaller pieces. The goal here is to create tasks that are actionable. If a task feels too big, break it down. What are all the components? Each one should be its own task.
Besides the activities necessary to complete the steps in your plan, you’ll have activities to ensure the completion of the tasks and the plan itself. These are project management activities. No project runs on “automatic pilot,” and you will need to manage the work if you want to achieve your objectives.
Activities are likely to change. Your goals, objectives, and strategies won’t change once you’ve established them. Your plan may change as you execute, adjusting as necessary to changes in you, your organization, or your environment. Your activities are more flexible. As you are executing the plan, you will identify new things you need to do.
Why Use GOSPA?
Starting with qualitative goals and converting them to quantitive objectives (SMART goals) reflects our thinking processes more naturally. Making the conversion explicit also helps ensure we are looking at multiple potential objectives and deciding on the right measures of future success.
GOSPA also ensures a direct link between those objectives and your strategies. You develop strategies to achieve objectives. You will have complete strategic coverage of all your critical goals and can tie every strategy back to the goals it achieves.
The GOSPA process doesn’t require applying a particular strategy approach. It doesn’t force you into one framework over all the others. Pick the one that works best for you in your environment or combine multiple approaches.
The link between strategy and plan is a key benefit of using GOSPA. Traditional approaches stop after we define the strategy and leave the tactical details of executing the strategy for another day. When you use GOSPA, you dive right into planning. Just as it links strategies to goals, it links plans to strategies. You emerge with plans to achieve each of those strategies and many of the key activities to complete those plans. You can start executing immediately.
The flow of GOSPA is useful when communicating your strategy. The flow of goal to objective to strategy to plan to activities helps your audience understand not only what you are doing but why. You need not understand the process to understand the output.
I’ve been a big fan of GOSPA since first learning it many years ago and use it frequently. Organizations of any type or size can apply the process. It also works at every level of an organization. Your C-Suite can use it to develop a corporate strategy. A director or manager can use it for departmental or team goals. An individual can use it to develop a personal goal program. I’ve used it in all of those situations and more.
The next time you have to develop a strategy to achieve a goal, give GOSPA a try. Let me know how it works.