For most organizations today, strategic planning has a bad rap. A well deserved, honestly earned bad rap, but a bad rap nonetheless. In today’s world, strategy is viewed as being essential while strategic planning is seen as dispensable. Resolving this dichotomy will be one of the key deciding factors in the success or failure of organizations in the coming years.
What often passes for strategy today would more appropriately be described as ‘vision’, if that word itself hadn’t been drug through the mud of a thousand facilitated team-building sessions. It tends to be a fuzzy, intuitive, gut-level sense of where the organization will be a few years out, rather than any practical and meaningful framework. There is no conscious choice made about what will be done or how that future will be realized, just an earnest and slightly wishful belief that if we all hope hard enough and pull together then the future we desire will be ours.
The antithesis of this view is mired in incrementalism, rooted in a view that the future will be much like today, just bigger. The debate is not over what the future will be, but in how much of that future market share our organization will have or how much growth we will realize over our current base. It is this belief in growth for growth’s sake that enables otherwise sane individuals to believe that 50% growth is attainable in perpetuity. Debates rage over determining what growth rate accurately reflects the future, with positions dug in and ardently defended over individual percentage points. Once the dust settles, the ‘business plans’ are updated to reflect the new sales, performance or growth targets, and the organization once again goes back to whatever else it was doing.
The problem with both of these extremes, apart from encompassing the majority of what passes as strategic planning today, is that they are in no way actually related to strategy. According to Merriam-Webster, the word “strategy” can be defined as “a careful plan or method; the art of devising or employing plans or stratagems toward a goal”. In other words, strategies are a statement of how we are going to get there from here, not what “there” looks like. Setting a goal, whether that goal is a new vision of what the organization can be, or an incremental evolution of how we would like to grow and evolve, is merely the first step. It isn’t the easiest step, by any stretch, but it is only the first. Once the goal is arrived at, strategy is what in fact determines how we will accomplish that goal.
At this point, you may well be squirming in frustration at this definition of strategy, or nodding your head in recognition – of the problems, and of the issues. A very, very few will be agreeing with the definition, and doing so because what I’ve described is how they already approach strategy. This is unfortunate; not because they agree, but because there are in fact so few who embrace true strategic planning. What is fascinating are the barriers that get built up in defence of strategy as it is applied – or not applied – in organizations. As a word, ‘strategy’ becomes an ideologically loaded term that brooks no compromise or challenge. Strategy becomes not a process of defining a path to the future so much as it becomes faith that a path will be defined, and that is not our place to question that path or the vision that defines it.
The reality is that questioning the vision, and questioning the path forward, are essential – questioning is in fact an inherent and necessary element in strategic planning, just as it is in project management. What is essential to developing effective strategy is the process of discovery, not what the answer should be at the end of the day. The process allows us to define why we are choosing a path, not ensuring what the right path really is. If we know why we are pursuing a strategy forward, then we also know what we must do to adapt the strategy when our plans do not unfold as we expect them to.
It is also essential that we recognize our strategies and plans will change. We do not plan because we expect the future to unfold in precisely that manner – this is in fact the source of the problems associated with the ‘outcome’-based approaches we discussed earlier. Setting a target without a plan is a recipe for failure. Setting a plan to attain a target without allowing for flexibility of the plan is not much better. Setting a plan that recognizes that actual performance will vary, and allowing for the flexibility to respond to those changes as required, is essential.
To quote Dwight D. Eisenhower, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” It is the act of planning that allows us to prepare, to be able to respond, and therefore to maximize the probability of actually attaining our goals. Strategic plans are the framework within which the process of discovery can be realized, and out of which the work going forward can be defined.