Strategic Planning: This Is How We Do It

Over the past few years I’ve grown very interested in the idea of strategic planning. I’ve been through the process on several occasions; generally, it has felt like a gigantic waste of time.Though I see the value and need in the process and the plan, the reality ends up falling short. As time passes, I read more and more articles and meet more professionals that tend to agree with me, and it leaves me feeling a little less lonely.

For some like-minded professionals out there, a strategic plan can be encapsulated by the following: insert an elongated yawn followed by sleep apnea-level snores followed by a bloated donkey passing gas followed by silence and then repeat in three and three quarter years when the yawns, snores, farts and silence have been filed away in an olive green cabinet at the end of a dark hallway that’s been overrun by spiders and boxes of sticky notes with old branding.

To put it more simply: current approaches to strategy aren’t working.

Why? Let’s think about how strategic planning usually happens …

1) Big old stinky lists. I love making to do lists, and often they don’t require much explanation. But when strategy becomes a laundry list of things to do to “fix” whatever problem the organisation is attempting to address, it will be unmanageable. Strategy isn’t simply what we do.

2) It’s not an event. A weekend at a dude ranch with heavy planning during the day and mechanical bulls and hot tubs at night isn’t going to work. Strategy is an ongoing process, and while it’s nice to treat board and staff to a getaway to “reward” them for thinking so hard, save the retreat for team building. Strategic planning isn’t team building. 

3) Lack of Focus. This isn’t about wordsmithing the mission and vision. Valuable time and mental energy shouldn’t be spent on arguing over semantics and struggling to ascribe meaning. If you need to rewrite these, put your strategy on hold, define your terms and then move forward. Good strategy isn’t built on passively defined platitudes.

4) No One Knows Why They’re Here. There is often confusion between strategic planning and operational planning. Day to day issues are important, but don’t/shouldn’t define direction. Strategy isn’t quarrels about coffee pots or how the mail is processed.

5) No Accountability, No Buy In, No Follow Up. Three big ones, but I chalk it up to organisational attitudes. If the plan isn’t meaningful to those meant to execute it, it will sit on the shelf and gather dust. If there aren’t systems in place to track and report movement in relation to the plan, there can be no clear idea of what happened and what worked (or didn’t.) And when it all falls apart, the blame game begins, people get defensive, and when you attempt to do it again, the room is too filled with passive aggressive energy and doubt. Strategy doesn’t work if there’s no framework for success. 

6) Way too long, way too far. Think of the changes that happened to your organisation over the past five years. Do you really think it’s wise to try to encapsulate the next five in a document? Plans that focus on too much time are cumbersome dinosaurs that simply can’t be as agile and adaptive to change. While giant, rigid things might be exciting in the bedroom, 40 page documents that span half a decade are not. A strategy is not the Great Wall of China.

Plans Are Worthless. Planning is Everything

So how exactly do you inject some life, usefulness and fresh air into these plans?

1) This Is How We Do It. Cue Montell. For every what, there needs to be a how. If you can’t figure out the how, reconsider the what.

2) Create value in the process, not just the product. It’s tough work, but the process should be rewarding for all involved. If all around the table are invested in the organisation, invest in a process that is more than just 8 hours before a spa treatment. Likely, this is more than just one work-day-on-a-weekend-brain-drain. And the people coming to the table deserve to get more out of it than a free night in an uncomfortable bed and a comb-bound laminated dust collector for their desk.

3) Simplicity will unleash potential. Invest the time to ensure the basis of your communications, your organisational rhetoric, and planning documents are crisp, clear, and elegantly simple. “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn” says a lot more than “It has come to the attention of management that an excess in ultra contemporary diminutive humanoid garments for lower body extremities has unfortunately resulted in increased pressure to downsize due to inadequate performance.”

4) Find the space between the nuts and bolts of what you do as an organisation and what you believe with powerful questions. In that space people are going to be able to leave behind the immediacy of now and dig deeper. It’s about bridging the gap between the doldrums of refilling the paperclip compartment of their drawers and the platitudinous concepts of “quality” or “growth” or “success.” (See item 3 again!)

5) Integrate the plan and share the destination. Don’t waste time on a process to create a plan if you’re not actually going to follow through. Ensure everyone comes away with a sense of what is next, what is expected of them, and what they can expect in terms of benchmarking, reporting, and accountability. This should be the objective of every meeting you hold in your organisation, but that’s a rant for another day.

6) Fail faster, fail forward, fail flexibly. The world moves way too fast for five year strategic plans. Focus on two at most, and revisit your plan often. If you’re off course, ask why. If things aren’t working, decide what the appropriate course of action should be. If you can fail faster, forward, and flexibly, your successes are going to come faster, too.

As I pull out the hem on the cuff of my blazer and try not to dry heave from anger, frustration and boredom during the SWOT Analysis, I know out there somewhere are decent, hardworking folks who want to barf just as hard as I do. Solidarity! What are your thoughts on strategic plans? Have you had similarly bad experiences? Or are you a contrary bugger and want to tell me about some amazing traditional strategic planning session you attended or facilitated? Are you on drugs? Do you share?