Ask good planners what it takes to make the planning process successful, and you will undoubtedly hear one theme repeated over and over: You can't plan successfully unless you involve your key managers in the process.

To many chief executive officers, this may be an obvious point. But to John Sandford, president of a $14-million advertising agency in Memphis, hearing that message during a planning seminar last year just about changed his corporate life. Today, Cochran, Sandford, Jones Inc. has an 11-member executive committee that is in the process of producing the company's first formal strategic plan. The committee is made up of officers of the company and heads of departments, each of whom has specific areas on which to research and report. The assignments include a variety of topics, ranging from pricing policy, staffing, and automation to new product development, marketing, and organizational structure. This fall, Sandford will tie the reports into a plan that will be presented to the company at large.

For Sandford, the process itself has been revelatory. "What [this method of planning] has done among this group of people is amazing; it's more profitable than the document itself will ever be," he states. "Our people are now working together toward the achievement of common goals and shared values."

The same philosophy is shared by James Tyler, CEO of 2B System Corp., located in a suburb of Detroit. Instead of the traditional pyramid approach to planning practiced by big companies, Tyler asks his four department heads to do their own operational and budget planning for the coming year, subject to his final OK. Then, once plans are approved, Tyler says, "I look at my job as being one of a utility infielder. If sales needs help, I'll go there. If production is having problems, I'll shift my weight there. But always at their request."

By asking people to participate in the planning process, says Tyler, whose plastic-card manufacturing company is expected to reach $3 million in sales this year, you are "putting the challenge on to each individual. It's their goals they are meeting, not yours. It gives them a truer sense of the company's future."

Both Sandford and Tyler acknowledge that this type of planning process isn't always easy. "It takes time away from other things, and it requires [the planning team] to think a different way and write it all down," says Sandford. On the other hand, he doesn't see any alternative. "Our company is moving into a strong growth pattern, and I can't do it alone. I've got to have the support of my people."