Why Strategic Planning Goes Wrong

reprinted by request

As a consultant, executive staff member, board director, and teacher, I have had the opportunity to engage in a lot of strategic planning. I think about it, research it, and look for ideas to make it work better than how it tends to work.

It has always bothered me to know that more often than not strategic planning efforts go awry. In another article I wrote on this topic, I stated the biggest reason why strategic plans fail is that people don’t do them. While there is truth in that, the story doesn’t end there of course. It’s why people and organizations fail to do successful strategic planning that deserves some attention.

The difference between Strategy and Plan
Let’s start with what I suggest are some fundamental misconceptions about strategic planning. The biggest misconception is that strategy and planning are one in the same. How often, for example, do you hear people equate strategic planning with a “blueprint” or a “roadmap?” While those words are good metaphors for the word, “plan,” they fail substantially in capturing the meaning of “strategic” or “strategy.”

Strategy is not a blueprint or a roadmap
Build a house according to a set of blueprints and you will succeed in bringing to life someone’s vision of a house. It is the vision of the house that is the strategy; the blueprint is the plan created to achieve the vision, but it cannot exist without the vision whereas one’s vision of a house can survive without a blueprint.

“Roadmap” is also an inadequate metaphor. It simply shows the connections between locations and the various ways to get around from one point to another. A roadmap says nothing about strategy or vision. In fact a roadmap is ultimately rather useless without one’s desire or intention to go from one point to another. Once the destination or destinations (i.e. the vision) are determined, then the road map becomes an excellent tool.

So, one of the reasons way strategic planning fails is that organizations fail to differentiate between “strategy” and “plan.” More often than not in my experience, this results in people giving short shrift to visioning the future, thinking strategically, and exploring ideas that challenge the status quo. Instead, they move quickly to figuring out how to do something even before they really understand what it is or why they should do it.

That would be like identifying a simplistic vision of a house as having a kitchen, living room, bathrooms, and bedrooms and then setting out to build it without having thought about what results and outcomes you want from your home. Do you want to entertain your friends, have a place that your kids will want to share with their friends, or do you need a home that can accommodate you later in life? What’s the strategy?

Strategic retreats are not enough
Another misconception is that strategic planning can be accomplished in a day long retreat or a series of shorter meetings. Even when we have experienced numerous retreats that have failed to produce stellar strategies, we stubbornly stick to the practice. In our hearts we know it is not enough time, but we are too immersed in day to day operations, current board and management practice, and often we are not prepared to invest the time, money, and effort required to do what needs to be done.

Effective strategic planning is a living thing. While it articulates what Henry Mintzburg calls “prescribed strategies” a truly strategic organization also has eyes open for “emergent strategies” and incorporates them into its thinking and then its planning documents.

Organizations serious about achieving strategy or vision ensure that they are monitoring and evaluating the progress of their plans, making adjustments along the way, stopping what isn’t working, and introducing new actions when it makes sense to do so.

Instead of being one of those many reports asleep on the bookshelf, a strategic plan should be on your desk, with marked up pages, folded corners, and a weathered spine from being opened and closed so often. It should be the touchstone document that preoccupies the minds and actions of leadership teams as well as line staff.

Professionalizing planning can stifle strategy
Even organizations that create staff positions called “planners” or “strategic planners” often miss the mark when it comes to being strategic. What can happen is that by creating positions and formalizing strategy-making and planning within a department or division, organizations look to a select few for new ideas and directions. That’s counterproductive because good strategy-making is accomplished through collaborative dialog across an organization, not by staff positions deemed to be “strategic.”

Strategic planning as “ritual rain dance”
In fact, what often happens is that planners and strategists inside an organization end up spending more time on the process of planning than on facilitating creative exchanges about the future. This can lead to a continuous cycle of improving planning processes and tools to the point where planning as a function overpowers strategy-making.

J. Brian Quinn of Dartmouth, a collaborator with Henry Mintzberg, offers his view of what happens: “[Strategic Planning] is like a ritual rain dance; it has no effect on the weather that follows, but those who engage in it think it does. Moreover…much of the advice and instruction related to…planning is directed at improving the dancing, not the weather.”

Concentrate on being strategic
Organizations might be better served if they thought less about what strategic planning model or exercise to deploy and focused more on having meaningful dialog throughout the organization about the future, how to innovate, what results to aspire to achieve, and how to create and sustain a nimble, risk tolerant, and outcome-focused team of people.

In the nonprofit sector, the blessing of volunteerism can sometimes cause confusion or slow the pace. Over the years I have seen board members impose their view of how to do strategic planning on the organization. Sometimes the rationale is that what worked for “my business” should work for the nonprofit organization. Other times board leaders are simply sharing what they know and have experienced. The problem is that planning models and processes undertaken by large retail chains, telecommunications companies, oil companies and the like often do not translate well into the nonprofit arena.

Board members’ desire to help would be better served on working with the CEO to facilitate and animate strategic thinking. That’s what boards should focus on: strategy – not on whether or not the model should include a SWOT analysis, issues management, stakeholder analysis, or follow the tenets of experts like Mintzberg, Porter, Bryson, Drucker, or Collins.

Find the strategy. That’s the most important thing. Then pick a model that fits your organization, your culture, and the strategy you want to bring to life.

Vision and strategy are about embracing change
Just because an organization understands the need to envision the future does not necessarily mean it will create one. To truly vision the future, to craft strategies that will lead to desired changes down the road, and to paint an inspiring picture of the future, organizations need to embrace change as part and parcel to tomorrow’s success.

Avoid protectionist visioning
Strategic planning will go wrong if organizations engage in what I call “protectionist visioning” which is more about brushing a fresh coat of paint on the status quo than creating something new and inspiring. Such status quo visions tend to repackage what is going on now with new language, imagery, and spin. This kind of strategic planning avoids authentic engagement, ignores disruptive solutions, and typically identifies goals that at best are incremental, much less capable of attaining break through results.

Success requires tough decisions
Sometimes organizations do a great job of engagement and are serious about figuring out the big picture for their organization, but when the rubber hits the road, they fail to make the tough decisions.

Strategy is about making choices and decisions in order to succeed. It calls for authentic dialog about the problems and issues facing the organization. Good practice calls for diverse perspectives at the table, which means people do not always see things the same way or come to the same conclusions about what direction to go in.

For every yes¸ there is a no
Such diversity should create strategic options that the organization can look at and then make decisions about. The very nature of dialog and of identifying options is such that not everyone’s individual perspective will prevail. The hope is the diverse perspectives will amalgamate into strategies and common aspirations that are more effective than anyone could produce on their own.

Being able to make tough decisions is important because for every YES an organization finds, there is at least an implied NO. While dialog involves compromise, it should not result in watering things down to the point where there are at best weak strategies striving for a vague vision of the future.

So, now what?
First, I recommend organizations understand their terminology. I offer two definitions that may help.

Strategy: the convergence of what people know, think, intuit, feel, respect, value and wonder about that inspires a group’s explicit aspiration for a better future.

Plan: the formalized organization of people, processes, and technologies required to achieve strategy or a set of strategies.

You might not agree with my definitions entirely, but I hope I have adequately differentiated between the two words.

My advice to nonprofits is to break free of habitual planning practices, especially if they constantly frustrate you. Focus instead on creating and sustaining an environment of dialog and innovation so that people across your organization are future minded rather than subjects of a well honed planning system.

3 thoughts on “Why Strategic Planning Goes Wrong

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