Strategic Planning Be Gone!

A lot has been written about strategic planning. A quick internet search will yield numerous articles, book references, and a plethora of templates to use. What’s been catching my attention lately, and consistent with my beliefs, is that the “Strategic Plan is Dead” (References below). Well ok, not really.  While the importance of thinking strategically remains, the traditional view of a three or five-year strategic plan may no longer serve you. Given constant organizational change, combined with globalization and unanticipated opportunities and threats, leaders must be able to continually adapt to evolving market conditions and the socio-political and economic environment. An adaptive process to planning is supported by the growing body of work in Systems Thinking (Senge), Complex Adaptive Systems (Glenda Eoyong), Cybernetics and by consultants who specialize in Strategic Planning. It is not surprising that we should be challenging the traditional strategic planning mindset given the amount of effort (time, people, implementation) often involved in planning can leave you susceptible to those who are able to respond more quickly to client demand and changes and, for the public sector, to government pressures and change in focus. Strategic Planning Principles: From my experience in strategic planning and, based on what I see happening with organizations today, I employ the following principles in my approach:
  • Hedging Your Bets: What’s been instrumental in my approach to strategic planning is to see the process as important as the output.   While the plan is important, it is a best guess within the current reality and predicted future. As Management Professor Tony Williams, an esteemed colleague and friend, states:Strategy is placing a ‘bet’ that one set of actions/ approach will be more likely to reach their objectives than another set of approaches. We place a bet on one horse rather than another. We assess the record of that horse, all the conditions, competition, jockey (talent) etc. and from all of that data we make a decision to place a bet on one management process rather than another.Strategic management is a process not an end point or state.  It is alive and dynamic and always in the forefront of our thinking. If the bet appears to be paying off, stick with it. If it isn’t or the conditions change then modify the strategy”.
  • Process: The process of strategic planning is as important as the content discussed. Providing a structure for participants to navigate into both what they know as well as what they don’t know allows for the priorities to emerge clearly and with confidence.
  • Pace: I intentionally apply a fast-paced approach with my clients to create an experience that parallels the environment they often work in.  A dynamic flow allows for organic and purposeful conversation to lead the group through the “funnel” (a process of narrowing and focusing).   This enables the right conversations to emerge, at the right time.We still use traditional strategic planning elements such as the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities & Threats) as part of our process, however, it is only one input to the whole process.
  • Zoom Out and In: My sessions are designed so that participants “fold in and out” (like kneading bread) throughout the process, allowing them the ability to move from what I call the hot air balloon perspective (i.e., examining outside their department / organization) as well as zooming into themselves, allowing their purest passion and essence to emerge (think Hedgehog Concept, Good to Great, Jim Collins).
  • Emergence: Emergence is a key element of the revised strategic planning process. My clients continually tell me that they appreciate the way the obvious priorities emerge from the conversations.  They love the experience of being led through what appears, at times, to be disconnected conversations and activities and then arrive at a place of clarity about their future vision and strategic goals.
  • Fun!: I hold true to my principle of fun at work. I believe people are busy enough, faced with enough pressures and stresses that where possible, embedding some fun in the strategic planning can challenge the right-brain, encourage creative and innovative thinking and ultimately, generate better results.  People often tell me how they appreciate the ‘artificial’ time crunch I place upon them, pushing them towards the learning edge, distilling new ways of thinking.

Strategic Planning Tips:

For your next strategic planning process, consider embedding the following practices:
  1. Flexibility –Ensure that you are flexible in all aspects of your strategic planning process. Notice if you are attached to any outcome or approach as this could hinder the process of allowing the right conversations (and valuable surprises) to emerge.  My experience when we become attached is that we get stuck in our beliefs, often non-supportive ones, that prevent us from taking the leap of faith, and keeping our competitive edge.
  1. Pace – Keep your pace fluid to allow your participants to move quickly from one conversation to the next. Traditional approaches to strategic planning sessions can be quite lengthy and analytical.  Providing a speedier pace (even with time constraints for some activities) creates space for the right foci to bubble up to the surface in a fairly short amount of time.
  1. Big Picture Systems View – It is important to maintain the “Hot Air Balloon” perspective as you delve into strategy. Sometimes this can be difficult and we get caught in the weeds. To truly determine your focus and priorities requires viewing your organization systemically; the elements it interacts with (internally and externally) and its impacts. This will allow you to see things that may have been obscured and allow for a clear road map to emerge.
  1. Purpose – your purpose/your why – Simon Sinek provides an excellent TED talk on the importance of truly identifying your why. In order to be successful, it is critical to hone in on your purpose; your raison d’être.  As you explore your own why, this becomes language that can influence your organization’s brand and how you position yourselves.  This exploration has been a key contributor to bringing my clients closer to the core of what differentiates them from others and inspires them to be excited about the goals they set out to accomplish.
  1. Passion – Tied closely to purpose is passion. This is the heart of what makes you and your team tick.  This is aligned with your value set and, as Jim Collins shares in “Good to Great”, it is important to tap into what you are most passionate about as a differentiator for success. Spend time considering your passion as it can drive higher performance; inspire those around you as you live your strategy and implement your goals from your passion.
  1. Engagement: Strategic planning is a process as much as an outcome. This means you want to engage key stakeholders who can provide input towards your best ‘bets’ from both the ‘hot air balloon’ and the ‘up close’ perspectives. Your plan should reflect all voices (even those that may dissent).  This encourages greater buy-in and prepares those who need to act on the plan to be responsive and flexible.
  1. Draft versus Final – Consider your strategic plan as a living document, a continually updating draft. This allows you and your team to be more open to changing the plan if required. Keep the plan alive and relevant by:
  • continually referring to it in relation to your overall vision and changing conditions (internal, external)
  • determining if the bets you made are still valid, and
  • modifying the plan if conditions have changed.
In order to maintain competitive and adjust to change, it is critical to:
  • Challenge your beliefs.
  • Regularly scan internally and externally, while keeping agile enough to respond to changing conditions.
  • Ensure accountability by focusing on strategy execution, adaptation and interim goal setting.
  • Establish scorecard mechanisms for implementation (even weekly, at the individual level, to allow for higher levels of performance, results and speedier adaptation, if necessary).
  • Be willing to assess and, if necessary, adjust your bets.
Strategic planning is no longer about a methodical and lengthy process. Speed, intention and action are the secrets to success.   Check out the following resources for more on Strategic Planning:
  • The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Peter M. Senge (1990)
  • Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, Jim Collins (Hedgehog Concept) (2001)
  • The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving your Wildly Important Goals, Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, Jim Huling.

6 Responses

  1. Thank you for a very insight article with a lot of solid advice on the strategic planning process. I would like to briefly comment upon these points you made. “Challenge your beliefs. Regularly scan internally and externally, while keeping agile enough to respond to changing conditions.” Not only does this apply to individual leaders within the organization but to the organization itself. After all now that know that organizations are legally recognized the as having rights of being a person and the privileges of being a person. Organizations also must Challenge its beliefs and regularly scan internally and externally, while keeping agile enough to respond to changing conditions. The organization’s stated mission and values must be in alignment and must be grounded in a supportive organization culture. The well intended strategic planning process being facilitated by the most skillful leaders will all be in vain it there is not a solid, reflective, and adaptable organizational culture in place.

    1. Thanks for your perspective on this Dan. As someone who loves looking at systems – organizational ones – your thoughts about the system challenging its beliefs is really a culture conversation and I could not agree more. Thanks for this 🙂


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