Recently, I was interviewing someone responsible for supporting the definition and delivery of strategic projects for a large, well respected organization. What he had to say about strategy and strategic alignment in his organization surprised me. A lot. When discussing how initiatives were identified and prioritized, he noted that his organization had no clear strategy. Not only was there no well defined strategy, but the absence of strategy was a conscious and deliberate choice of the executive team.
“The reasoning is that because of the dynamic nature of the environment, we need to roll with the punches. So it is hard to lay out a strategy. Most of our senior management don’t buy into that view, but that’s what the executive want to do at the moment. So the rules tend to change based upon what is current at the moment.”
The idea that an organization should avoid having a strategy in place, because the environment is changing, strikes me as complete and utter madness. While I can understand frustration with the rate of change, and the need to respond to shifting priorities, the complete absence of a plan is no way to run a multi-million dollar enterprise. It’s no way to run a small enterprise, either.
A strategic plan provides direction and expresses intent. It connects the purpose and direction of the organization with the strategic changes an organization needs to make in order to realize its desired future. Ideally, it articulates the specific projects, initiatives and activities that are necessary to move forward, and does so over a reasonably long-term horizon. Doing so provides a framework to plan the effort and resource commitment to realize an organization’s strategic priorities.
Defining a long-term plan, however, doesn’t mean that change can’t and won’t occur. Adaptation and responsiveness is critical. We can’t predict our future, and how events will unfold cannot be projected as a straight line from our past forward. Unanticipated incidents will occur, there will be shifts in the competitive and industry landscapes that we operate within, and new opportunities will present themselves that need to be evaluated and responded to. Organizations need to be flexible in response to shifting priorities. They also need to make sure that their plans aren’t so rigid and inflexible that they cannot respond and react appropriately.
Strategic planning, then, needs to find a balance between providing direction and remaining flexible. Not having a plan, though, leaves an organization in a perilous and precarious position. Without a plan, every opportunity is reacted to on an ad hoc basis. There is no guidance to the organization on what is important, and where staff and business units should be focussing their priorities. There is no clarity regarding goals and objectives of the organization. There are no definable or discernible criteria by which opportunities can be evaluated. The consequence is, to put not too fine a point on it, chaos. An organization without a plan is like a ship without a rudder; you may wind up somewhere, but you have very little control over where that is or how you get there.
In the example cited above, it’s fairly clear the senior management team recognize the importance of direction and clarity of priorities. They are also, based upon the insights provided by my colleague, struggling and chafing with the absence of clear insight into the desired future direction of the enterprise. They would like a plan to be in place, and actively struggle without having a clear strategy in place.
So why does the executive resist adopting a strategic direction? While the answer isn’t clear, there are some possible reasons. They may in fact lack the insight and expertise necessary to define an appropriate strategic plan. They may feel that previous planning efforts have failed, and therefore they are reluctant to invest further effort in something that they feel is a waste of time. They may actually like operating in a reactive, firefighting mode, and therefore committing to a direction feels unnecessarily and undesirably restrictive. They may struggle with what appropriate strategic plans can look like that do provide allowance for change. And, possibly, they may be seeking to avoid accountability; by not having a plan, they are limiting the ability to evaluate progress, but also avoiding the opportunity to be criticized for falling short or failing to meet targets. Without actually establishing targets, there is no progress to measure, and any success is entirely arbitrary and subjective.
Effective and credible strategic plans don’t just define one desired future. They don’t presume a single point forecast, or a finite, predetermined outcome. Flexible, responsive strategic plans are developed presuming a range of possible futures, where strategies, commitments and planned changes need to be flexible and robust enough to be relevant in a variety of different scenarios, in response to a range of potential uncertainties.
In other words, strategic planning is not to be avoided because change makes planning irrelevant. Change means that planning becomes essential. Strategic plans provide the direction and intent necessary to guide and focus the organization. They provide articulation of priorities and imperatives that enable evaluation of new opportunities as they emerge. And they provide a basis to understand intended activities and areas of emphasis, so that the organization can more flexibly react when the environment changes or new opportunities present themselves.
If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail. Because change is a reality. And strategic plans are not optional. They are the essential tools to manage in the face of massive change.