There is a debate that goes backwards and forwards every few years about the value of strategy, and the usefulness of strategic planning in general. In organizational contexts, strategic plans are often derided as being ossified and hidebound, not clear, not focused and not able to respond meaningfully in the face of a rapidly changing environment. Some organizations have gone so far as to abandon strategic plans as unworkable, and to just react and go with the flow. I have opinions about where that will get them, but I’ll leave that for a future article.
For ourselves, the idea of strategic plans can seem even more arcane, and therefore possibly even less relevant. Part of that is the temptation to import wholesale the structure of organizational strategic plans into the clarification of personal goals, direction and intent. Building a personal mission statement or vision statement can appear on the surface to be not just excessively formal, but more than a little pretentious.
While adopting the formality of traditional strategic plans is overwhelming and overkill in a personal context, there is still potential value to be found in the ideas and concepts that they represent. The ideas may not translate perfectly but they still offer relevance, if we can find a way to apply them meaningfully and in a way that works for us.
The whole point of a strategic plan is to provide clarity, direction and focus—and hopefully some inspiration and motivation along the way. Particularly now, having a clear and defined sense of purpose and intent can be really useful. But that’s arguably true at the best of times. The significant challenge is being able to decide; to define and commit to a specific direction, and then ensure follow-through on its attainment.
The problems of doing that are numerous. For starters, many of us are attracted to new and shiny and exciting. The result is that what you thought was your intention today gets sidetracked into a different opportunity tomorrow. And the day after that. And the day after that.
This is a phenomenon I am particularly famous for. It is probably in part what defines the entrepreneurial spirit: the ability to see an idea or opportunity, get excited and passionate about it, and endeavour to bring it to reality. That is great when you identify, choose, focus and follow-through. It is arguably less valuable when walking through life feels like a candy emporium, with new and exciting shapes, flavours and colours around every corner. I have business ideas that I have collected and not pursued. There are ideas I have captured and not followed-up on. I will not speak of the number of books that I have acquired because I absolutely had to read it, and yet have not managed to carve out the time to do so.
Without that clarity of focus, time gets spent on whatever presents itself as being perceived to be most compelling and urgent at any given moment in time. That is not necessarily what is most important. It may not even be what is most urgent. It may in fact look like an hours-long journey down the internet rabbit hole—rationalized after the fact as “research.” The consequence is that at the end of the day—or week or month or year or decade—the great ideas that you hoped to bring to life remain, still aspirational but not necessarily any further along the road towards fruition.
A singular challenge is that there isn’t a great deal of useful guidance about getting clarity and setting priorities. We know we are supposed to begin with the end in mind, and yet any detail about how to decide what that end should look like is indescribably vague. In Getting Things Done, a book I have written favourably about many times in the past, outlines future strategy using an analogy of flight levels of an airplane. At the level of the runway, we have current actions and commitments. Current projects are at 10,000 feet and areas of responsibility are at 20,000 feet. At 30,000 feet you get one-to-two year goals, 40,000 feet is home to three-to-five year goals and our life ambitions are at the lofty altitude of 50,000 feet. David Allen is extremely clear in the book that the tools he teaches are about the first 20,000 feet only. If you are looking for some guidance beyond that, you will be disappointed.
While the framework in Getting Things Done provides some structure of how we might think about defining priorities and direction and what might need to be articulated in arriving at answers. What still needs to be figured out is how to actually articulate where you want to be heading, and what those results might look like.
Another hurdle that is important to acknowledge is that we don’t do a great job as human beings about seeing into the future. This is a product of two different challenges that intersect in some important and significant ways.
First, how we think about time tends to be contained. Our natural rhythms tend to be built around weeks and days, and most of our planning is around these structures. Time management strategies reinforce this, with weekly reviews that set priorities for the coming days, and ask you to focus on what you need to get accomplished tomorrow.
The other challenge is our orientation to the future. We often think about it the way we look towards a horizon; up close things are clear and well-defined, and the further away the details get lost in the mist. Because there is no clarity in the future, there is often a great reluctance towards creating any structure whatsoever. The consequence is that we continually focus on the short-term that we think we can best control, often leaving our long-term outcomes to hope and chance.
Building a personal strategic plan (or at least a sense of direction towards which you want to progress) requires thinking differently about time, and our orientation to it. To do that isn’t just about shifting perspectives. It also requires addressing and challenging some assumptions about how we think about planning, how we think about the future and how we think about what strategy means in bringing intention to where we intend to focus.
The first—and possibly largest—challenge we have to confront is our expectations about plans. We live in a world that values precision and detail. We plan our days down to the minute with back-to-back appointments and meetings. To-do lists are extensive and exhaustive enumerations of everything we need to get done, from a two-minute email to a twenty-hour report. We try to pack our days as full as we can, leaving little room for error and little margin for personal breathing space.
While planning our days this way is often setting ourselves up for failure (how often are you successful in crossing everything off your list?) thinking about strategy the same way is exponentially more disastrous. We cannot—or at least should not—view strategy as employing the same tools or reflecting the same detail as what we routinely adopt in time management, extrapolated to a longer timeframe. It will not have the same level of detail. More importantly, we shouldn’t want it to.
It is the rare day that we can see clearly all the way to the horizon. The same is true for strategic plans. This is often where strategic plans come up for the most criticism: they are dismissed as being vague and abstract, where just about any course of action to be justified as strategically warranted. If the direction is so vague that any path and any outcome can be deemed a success, then that’s a legitimate criticism. But the antidote is not defining everything with absolute precision.
Your personal strategic plan should provide you with enough clarity that you know the direction in which you are trying to progress and the outcomes that you are hoping to realize. There will be flexibility, of necessity, in terms of timelines, effort and approach to how you get there. You may have a sense of the way you will accomplish your goals now, and the steps that will be required to attain them. As you work through those steps, however, you may realize they are unworkable. Other, more viable pathways may emerge that you weren’t even aware of. Opportunities may present themselves in your path that you didn’t anticipate.
The closer you get to your intended outcomes, the clearer the outcomes and the more defined the path should be. That’s were the relevance of David Allen’s levels of flight comes into focus. If something is on the horizon to be accomplished in the next year or two, then you should have a reasonable sense of what it will take to accomplish, and what your initial strategy will be. There will still be some flexibility and openness to alternative approaches, but the broad brushstrokes of your plan should be clear.
Intended goals that are three, four or five years out are going to be less well defined, more flexible and offer a lot more adaptability. This is a feature, not a bug. You need to have enough of a sense of what is important to you that you should be able to recognize related opportunities along the way that might accelerate—or at least complement—where you want to go. You should have a generally well-defined sense of the results that you want, why those results are important and the kind of steps that might be necessary to accomplish them.
Once we get beyond five years, outcomes become much more generalized. They should be. One of the longest normal periods of time that gets routinely planned for in life is attending university. Four years are staked out, very likely with a generalized course of study defined. Just because you start with a declared major, however, doesn’t mean that you stay with it; shifting direction, and even moving entire faculties, is not an unknown occurrence. This is a natural by-product of the learning process, and of finding the subjects and areas that resonate and the ones that ultimately don’t appeal. Few go to university knowing exactly what they intend to do once they graduate, however. They might have a ballpark idea, but that’s typically as precise as it gets.
So it is with our life goals. We may have targets, but we also allow for learning, evolution and growth. We are not trying to live our life by prescribed schedules and plans, so much as we are by intentions and a sense of direction and purpose. We have enough guidance to navigate in directions that appear promising, and enough flexibility to adapt and course correct as we discover and develop.
The value of a strategic plan is that it helps to provide clarity that might otherwise be lacking. It allows a sense of direction that allows you to make choices with purpose and motivation, while not being so prescriptive that your life feels predetermined and preordained. Most essentially, it allows you to be clear about what is important to you, and to make choices that move in that direction, rather than feeling obligated to react to the immediate and urgent demands that present themselves in your path.