Issue Briefs

A Sailor’s Guide to Strategic Planning

A Sailor’s Guide to Strategic Planning

Adam P. Saffer

July 20, 2017

The older I get, the more I appreciate simplification. Whether instructions on how to pair wireless devices, driving directions to a meeting place, a recipe for a good meal, or a training event, the simpler the better.  For years I worked as a management consultant helping for profit and non-profit firms develop their business strategy.  During those years, I read a plethora of books, papers and articles on the subject – each one smarter and often more complicated than the other.  Don’t get me wrong, there is a tremendous amount of creative, rational, well-researched and well-written literature available; all written by people far smarter than me.  Be it vision-based, issue-based, goal-based, or scenario-based, using various tools and structures such as a log frames, strategic maps, balanced scorecards, all offer interesting and valuable perspective.  However, if you don’t have a Chief Strategy Officer or are not particularly interested in or familiar with the process of strategic planning (which if executed correctly is usually as if not more impactful than the final product), it is hard to determine which model is best suited for your company.  Other determining factors include but are not limited to the stage of the business (e.g. start up, early stage SME, rapid growth or expansion phase, preparing to sell, transitioning to a new generation), the industry (e.g. manufacturing, wholesale, retail, services, FMCG, ICT), current market conditions, competitive dynamics, and the company’ approach to differentiation (e.g. high quality/low volume; low quality/high volume, faster, cheaper, greener, a new product).

One size does not fit all

One thing for sure is that one size (or approach) doesn’t fit all.  To me, while academically and theoretically fascinating, few of these strategic frameworks and guidelines are written in an easy to use and practical manner for business owners without an MBA, never mind a university education relevant to their business sector.

“Strategic planning is an organization’s process of defining its strategy, or direction, and making decisions on allocating its resources to pursue this strategy. It may also extend to control mechanisms for guiding the implementation of the strategy.”

A few years ago, while preparing for a sailing trip, it dawned on me that the various steps I was going through were similar to the steps one goes through in developing and implementing a business strategy.  Furthermore, many of the mistakes captains make when preparing for and embarking on a sailing voyage are the same or similar to those in the business world.  This article is an attempt to relate the two in a manner that resonates in a memorable and enjoyable way.


Step 1 in planning a voyage is determining the destination. This sounds obvious and intuitive but in business, this step is often skipped or only partially fulfilled. Mission and vision statements are important and set the overall direction and tenor of the firm but a precise destination, expressed in both qualitative and quantitative terms, is critical.  In sport, this is similar to aiming. While hitting the target or returning the ball in court is a requirement, aiming is what makes the difference and determines one’s competitiveness. Similarly, a destination should be clear, precise, and measurable.  Otherwise, how do you know you are on the right path and when you have arrived.

Step 2 is chart the course. There are many ways to reach any destination but choosing and charting the best possible course (be it the fastest, safest, most achievable given the resources at hand) will minimize risk and maximize the chances for an efficient and safe arrival.  Further, the course selection needs to be based on the entire duration of the journey.  The weather on the day of the departure, while important, is relatively insignificant when compared to what you expect along the way.  This is comparable to a market analysis, including a study of the trends, competition, relevant legal and regulatory framework, etc.  While not predictable, anticipating the market demand is vital in assessing the company’s ability to successfully differentiate and compete.  Thus, prepare for tomorrow’s market, not today’s.

Step 3 is ensuring you have an appropriate vessel for the journey.  As there are many options when plotting the course, there are also many alternatives when it comes to the vessel.  However, you wouldn’t cross an ocean in a canoe nor would you cross a river in an ocean liner.  The boat needs to able to handle the weather, sea conditions, have room for the provisions, and provide a safe, pleasant and conducive atmosphere for the crew.  In a business context, this is akin to a thorough introspective analysis of the company to assess the company’s capacity and capability to achieve the goal (destination) given the approach (course) selected.  No matter how ideal the course and the capability of the crew, the wrong boat will either not get there as expected (e.g. on time, on budget) or not get there at all.

Step 4 is having the right crew.  Similar to the above, even with excellent conditions and a great boat, you will not get there as planned with the wrong crew.  Here the organizational and functional structure is of paramount importance.  Any passage requires the right skills and experience to fulfill certain jobs (captain, navigation, sail handling, cook, etc.).  Similarly, any business needs the same (leadership, operations, financial management, marketing, sales, HRM, etc.).  In most cases, successful businesses, at a minimum, have a visionary leader (CEO), an excellent operations manager (COO), and someone who knows the product or technology (CTO).  One person rarely fulfills all three roles and thus a cohesive team is essential.  Based on my experience, the founder or original entrepreneur can arise from any background but usually is strongest in one of the three above referenced disciplines.  In family run businesses, putting together the right crew can be especially challenging as the choices are often emotionally and/or personally limited.

Step 5 is provisioning.  Depending on the destination (duration, level of difficulty, number of crew, etc.), the captain must be sure there is enough food, fuel, spare parts, cash reserves, safety equipment, charts, etc. on board to make it to the final destination, or have plotted a course where replenishments can be procured.  Similarly, when implementing a strategy that typically covers a period of a year or more, management needs to be sure they are sufficiently equipped, their staff has the resources they need, and the company can withstand as well as afford the journey.

“When people are financially invested, they want a return. When people are emotionally invested, they want to contribute.”  Simon Sinek

Step 6 is consensus and alignment. This is another area that is often under estimated or under serviced.  Alignment is often referred to as “singing from the same hymn sheet”.  It is about communicating with the crew, discussing the destination, course selected, everyone’s roles and responsibilities, and the overall plan.  The crew (management and staff) typically has valuable experience to contribute .While there is only one captain (CEO), having an open door, attentive ear and sincerely listening to what they have to offer can make a lot of difference along the way.  This is part of creating a shared vision.  The power of alignment is nothing short of inspirational.

Step 7 is departure and commencing the journey.  Congratulations.  This is a time to celebrate. When departing on a voyage, there are usually friends, family, and colleagues on to the dock waving goodbye and wishing you well. The crew is equally, if not more, excited about the days, weeks, and/or months ahead.

In a business context, this moment is often lost between meetings or communicated in an email.  Here is my advice: Take a moment and explicitly show appreciation and respect for the work that went into preparing the strategy and resultant shared vision amongst the greater team.  This is an important component of developing the strategy, which as mentioned above, is often as, if not more, important than the written word.  Please note that, in many respects, strategic planning is more about ownership (of the plan) and behavioral change (when implementing the plan) than the content itself.

Post-Departure (Implementation) 

Step 8: Making course adjustments:  Needing to adjust the course based on changing conditions along the way is a common occurrence.  Sometimes these adjustments are short term (e.g. a timing variance) such as coming across a squall, storm, or patch with no wind.  Herein you might temporarily lose ground (or money); but the overall plan remains intact.  In other cases, the adjustment required is permanent and may even result in a change of destination.

In either case, the captain must continuously be keeping an eye on the horizon, checking the weather forecast, condition of the boat, resource reserves, and status of the crew.

The same goes for business. Whether permanent or temporary, course adjustments should be expected.  Markets are dynamic in nature and comprised of new technologies, competition, consumer trends, and innovation as well as ever changing preferences and unanticipated opportunities.  I am an ardent believer in the adage, “always inspect what you expect”.  This is a must for any captain or business decision maker.

“One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results” Milton Friedman

Step 9 is monitoring and evaluating progress.  On most voyages, the course is plotted and marked by several waypoints on a chart.  These serve as beacons to ensure the correct path is followed.

In business terms, these are often described as interim results, intermediate objectives, milestones, or key performance indicators.  Regular monitoring and evaluation is critical to making good decisions in terms of navigation, sail selection, keeping your crew engaged and performing as expected, and ensuring a safe passage.  It is also a great learning tool to determining the best way to maximize the performance of your boat and crew as you get to see how they both behave in a variety of conditions.  The same applies in the business world.  Carefully and objectively monitoring the company’s performance in terms of its strategy, operations, sales pipeline and backlog, and financial and human resource management provides great insight into the firm’s strengths and weaknesses.  It also results in better decision making when it comes to both expected and unexpected problems and opportunities.

“Appreciate everything your associates do for the business. Nothing else can quite substitute for a few well-chosen, well-timed, sincere words of praise. They’re absolutely free and worth a fortune.” Sam Walton

 Step 10 is celebrating the achievement of key milestones along the way. Celebration and recognition is an essential part of any successful voyage.  No matter what the destination or context, the day to day repetition can get old and boring, if not irritating.  Thus, the captain, as well as other crew members, needs to work to maintain an atmosphere of excitement, learning, challenge, fun, success and promise.

The same applies to the business context.  It is the people behind the strategy that make it succeed or fail; and very little in life motivates more than being recognized and appreciated by your superiors and peers.  These are opportunities many leaders miss during the normal hectic daily life of running a unit, group, division, category or company.

There are also an infinite number of ways to do this, financially or non-financially, with or without humor, in or out of the office, etc.  The important thing to remember is:

A highly-motivated crew (staff) with a shared vision, sufficient resources, and the requisite skills can achieve almost anything.

(The above is an excerpt from a forthcoming book by Adam Saffer entitled “A Sailor’s Guide to Business”)


Saffer-portfolio-300x300Adam Saffer is a Global Policy Institute Senior Adviser. He is a seasoned international business executive with over 35 years’ experience promoting entrepreneurship, intrapreneurship, and innovation in the developing world. He has served as a CEO, COO, EVP, Country Manager, Chief of Party, board member, and consultant for public and private multinationals as well as international non-governmental organizations. He has worked extensively on donor-funded initiatives with host country ministries, government agencies, development banks, and private companies aimed at industrial development, technology transfer, job creation, workforce development, private sector development, public-private sector dialogue, and policy reform. He currently serves as the CEO of Gateway Development International, a private sector consulting practice with a focus on economic development strategies in emerging and frontier markets. Prior to this he was the President of the Americas for Coffey International (purchased by Tetra Tech in 2016). Mr. Saffer holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Cornell University and an MBA from the Harvard Business School. He currently resides in Cairo, Egypt and Eastham, Massachusetts. 


The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy of GPI.