More particularly, we’ve been doing strategic planning all wrong. In fact, for a number of organizations, strategic planning is a loaded term and strategic plans are a waste of time. This view is, largely, the product of a process that is perceived as involving expensive hotel retreats, wasted meetings and empty documents that do not lead to meaningful results. As a result, the entire strategic planning process has been rejected as valueless.
Certainly, there are a number of flaws with how organizations have attempted to develop strategy over the last several decades. From its heyday in the 1970s—when it was at least popular, if not actually effective—strategic planning as a process has become a reductionist effort to get through the whole painful experience as quickly as possible. If we can put the process of planning behind us, we can get on with the work of really trying to move forward on whatever goals are actually important to us.
The disconnect inherent in what strategic planning is in practice as opposed to what strategic planning should be is vast. We produce mission and vision statements that are vague, generic and uninspiring. We do a ‘SWOT’ to assess our internal strengths and weaknesses and our external opportunities and threats, resulting in a typically repetitive checklist that seldom gets revisited. High level goals like ‘be a leader in our marketplace’ create no tangible strategies and do not connect in any way to the projects being delivered and the work being performed. The entire result of the planning process gets published in a document that no one reads, no one follows and no one takes action on. A year or three later, we do it all again.
In the meantime, organizations are faced with real challenges as well as significant opportunities. Different agenda are pursued at differing levels of the organizational hierarchy, and what gets done as work is a product of power, influence, popularity and deception. It is not really surprising that a process so disconnected from current reality is so broadly derided. The reputation strategic planning enjoys is arguably well deserved.
It does not have to be this way. If organizations are going to be successful on a sustained basis, however, we are going to need to fundamentally reinvent the strategy process. The problems of strategic planning are inherent in how it is typically thought of and practiced. This means that we are going to need to challenge the underlying foundations of strategic planning, if we are going to have something more meaningful emerge in its place.
Foremost amongst the assumptions of strategic planning that need to be challenged is that it is an inherently linear, rational process. There is a broadly held perception that planning is deliberate, that the future can be analyzed and that there is a single best outcome for any organization. Based upon this assumption, planning is presumed to require extensive analysis of forecasts, intensive review of past performance and commitment to one, single, comprehensive plan forward. The reality is that we adapt our approach on something as simple as our evening commute from office to home; the presumption that we can fully and accurately predict strategies three or five years into the future is ludicrous.
Just because rational, linear planning is neither realistic nor effective doesn’t mean that the concept of strategy or the process of planning is irrelevant. We must think differently, however, about what we do and how we approach it. This means recognizing that abstract vision and mission statements need to be replaced with clear, compelling and meaningful statements of purpose that define who we are and why we exist. Environmental scans and ‘SWOT’ exercises need to be replaced with a comprehensive understanding of current state capabilities that takes into consideration how we operate and the competitive and market forces that we interact with, providing a concrete and relevant understanding of context. We need to rethink how we think about the future, recognizing that we face critical uncertainties that could lead to many potential outcomes. In particular, we need to evolve and adopt as circumstances change, perceptions shift and we learn new insights.
Interthink Consulting is helping to reinvent how strategy is developed, executed and realized. We are committed to developing practices that work. We are passionate about working with organizations who value strategy as an on-going conversation and exploration of future implications, rather than a defined, unchanging plan grounded in a fixed point of time. Our approach is flexible, adaptive and responsive—to both circumstances and the needs of our customers. Strategy is a journey; we would welcome the opportunity to be your guide.