The Trouble with Strategic Planning

Photo by D Ross

The State of Oregon issued an RFP (request for proposal) in July for strategic planning. Firms that meet the criteria will enter a preapproved pool to support agencies, commissions and school boards. In preparing my proposal, I dug into the difference between typical planning and the approach I now vow by … 

In 2017 I attended a professional development workshop in Vermont. At the end of the first day I had an epiphany. Most strategists miss the boat during strategic planning engagements. They chase trends. Mine for associations. Manufacture concepts. Most woeful of all, limit themselves to comparative thinking. They miss rich details that are right under their noses. They’re doing strategic planning all wrong.

Strategists have not been thinking originally. Which means we have not been teaching our clients how to think originally about their business and their strategy.

So, I changed how I work.

Stop solving problems and focus on what you want

I made a decision to make the study of reality a priority. Seeing what is really going on – operationally, inter-personally, with customers and prospects, and inside the hearts of leaders. It amounts to a rigorous, non-nonsense scan of the current operating state. This meant leaving behind the seduction of merely fixing something that someone considers a problem. Unlike most consultants, I’m no longer drawn to problems I can fix. Even if a client thinks that’s the place to begin, it’s a weak angle.

The better starting point is, “What do you want to create?” The answer may not roll off their tongue but together we can unearth what they genuinely want to bring into the world.

And then we can get to work. Honestly assessing the causal factors of the current situation. Contrasting those structures to the desired state. Clarifying options. Mapping the path forward. And building accountabilities so the work gets done.

Strategy isn’t difficult

Contrary to what everyone’s been told, strategy is simple. Organizations exist for a reason, a purpose. Strategy is about how they fulfill their purpose. Strategy answers the question, “How will the organization generate value?” Without a purpose and absent the generation of value, no organization is viable.

Most firms that offer strategic planning have long and involved processes. They can take months. Lots of meetings. Rounding up information that may or may not be relevant. Charts. Reports. Document trails. Six figure invoices on engagements that could be done better for one quarter the price.

In 2017 I began insisting on short engagements with deep thinking. It’s a method that is focused, inclusive, unambiguous and quick. What’s left at the end is an elegant strategy – straightforward and memorable. And highly actionable. Everyone knows their part and is equipped to keep it up to date based on reality as it changes and evolves.

Address adaptive and technical challenges

The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, by Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky, reminds us that with change comes risk. And loss.

When planning, it’s vital to recognize the difference between a technical challenge and adaptive one. For a technical challenge, the path forward is usually obvious. For an adaptive challenge, new learning is required for many if not all stakeholders involved. It’s an iterative process, not linear. You can see a few steps ahead but probably not clear through to the finish line. Strategic planning easily accommodates this reality if it’s structured to do so with feedback loops, real-time adjustments and clear accountabilities for testing, sharing and learning. To address adaptive challenges, the process becomes as important as the desired outcome.

Important distinctions such as these can be codified during planning. And when the planning process is straight about the nature of change, it frees people to approach their roles with realism and fortitude.

Ultimately, people who experience straightforward planning processes gain a big leg up. They learn how to constructively challenge assumptions and test interpretations. They discover new modes of decision-making. That, in turn, allows team norms and protocols to naturally evolve and mature — an invaluable side benefit that strengthens performance for both individuals and the group.