It has been a while since I have written about strategic planning. In two previous articles, I expressed my academic concerns about traditional strategic planning methodologies, especially in the current climate of rapid change and uncertainty. I suggested a middle ground between long-range strategic planning and the need for immediate strategy, execution, learning and nimbleness. (see Strategic Planning: What’s the Point? and Strategic Plan or Strategy Execution?)
For the past year, I have been busy working with several clients on strategic planning projects that have given me a real-world laboratory in which to test some of my ideas. I’d like share some of what I have learned and suggest a pathway you can follow to create a more dynamic and practical approach to strategic planning. Because it appears that strategic planning is still of significant concern to CEOs and boards, and because I am being contacted almost exclusively to work as a consultant in that area, it is more than timely to become more explicit about what works and what doesn’t.
A strategic plan can be thought of as a story. It has a past, a current reality, and a future that has yet to be written. In other words, a strategic plan provides a narrative context for understanding the organization and its movement into a desirable future. Because the story is still being written, it is sometimes useful to step back and ask a few simple questions in order to establish meaning and purpose for the activities that comprise strategic planning. I have found these questions to be particularly helpful with boards of directors who may not always see the complexity of organizational processes or have the capacity to digest large quantities of information. While there are myriad tools, systems, methods and models of strategic planning, not all of them address all of these foundational questions. My experience has shown me that any plan that doesn’t somehow answer these questions does not serve the organization well.
There is nothing magic or exclusive about these questions. They occurred to me because I have had to explain why I was recommending certain activities in the planning process. In fact, I have found that they often elicit additional questions, either for clarification or further analysis. Feel free to add or subtract in order to serve your needs. For my purposes, I focus on these questions to help boards understand what we are ultimately trying to accomplish.
- What are you doing?
- How well are you doing it?
- What will your environment look like in the future?
- What does your environment look like right now?
- Where would you prefer to be in the future?
- Can you get there?
- How will you know if you get there?
- How will you address unexpected challenges and opportunities along the way?
- How will you support continuous learning, thinking and acting?
- How will you tell the story, to whom, and for what purpose?
I’ve decided to write a short article on each of these ten questions. I’ll be posting these every Monday for the next ten weeks. I hope you will find them helpful as you think about your organization and the future you would like it to achieve. At the end of ten weeks, I will also provide a bonus article which will describe my attempt to visually depict this model. Hopefully, by the end of ten weeks, I’ll have refined my schematic so that it is easily understandable. The difficulty has been in trying to integrate a largely linear long-range process with periodic cyclical activities, all the while implementing tools to remain nimble and responsive to unanticipated challenges and opportunities. I think I have found a way to illustrate these three concerns in terms of measures of time, but you’ll have to be the judge.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you about your experiences doing strategic planning in your organization. Please share the good, the bad, and the ugly. We all learn from each other’s successes as well as failures.