Strategic Planning Vitalized

A lackluster planning process leads to flawed strategy

by Samantha Howland

It’s that time of year again: strategic planning season. As annual planning and preparation tasks begin popping up on corporate calendars across the country, leaders cringe at the distraction. Given the current atmosphere of uncertainty, many executives approach planning with urgency and impatience — simply looking to get it over with — rather than approaching the process with a desire and drive to create a relevant and meaningful plan.

As a result, the traditional planning process is marked by colorless research, one-dimensional thinking and dreary discussions held in beige corporate conference rooms that are furnished with stale bagels and manila folders — truly a “beige zone.” As the average corporate lifespan continues to plummet — now hovering at just 40 years — this prevailing approach gives organizations a false sense of strategic security and little guidance or protection in changing markets. Strategic planning sets the course for an organization’s key choices, including claiming a market position and delighting targeted customers. It can and should be an ongoing process, rather than a dull, drab annual exercise.

Effective planning requires insight from diverse sources, alternative points of view, healthy debate, maverick voices and aspirational strategic thinking. A hierarchical, linear set of steps that have been followed for years will net similar results, without considering a broad range of new possibilities. Creative, non-traditional settings along with collaborative exercises that take in external viewpoints can create the right tone, setting the wheels in motion for a shift in results.

“A corporation in official planning mode is not a corporation; it’s a collection of unconscious publishers whose only goal is to produce a thick, bound book full of tight, logical goals, tactics and metrics — with not a lick of real strategy,” says Steve Krupp, Decision Strategies International CEO and planning evangelist. “The outcome is an unreadable work of fiction with no direction whatsoever on how the organization must change or the new problems it must solve.”

The following tips will help organizations avoid the beige zone and produce full-spectrum strategy:

Don’t rely on the past. Strategic futures should not be based on the recent past. Plans should include a balanced combination of past, present and future issues and goals that embrace the known and unknown.

Don’t silo the process. True strategy stems from synthesis, not analysis. Research and perspectives that only come from deep views of siloed sources obscure the bigger strategic picture. It’s important for organizations to broaden their view to include a variety of sources inside and outside the confines of their industries and their experiences.

Don’t ignore the competition. Plans that fail to consider competitors are restrictive and often repetitive. With no new stimulus, they are forced to continually reproduce their own view of the world. Organizations should consider present, past and potential competitors.

Consider more than one possible future. Organizations need to consider more than one future in order to be prepared for new markets and unforeseen developments. Using objective measures of hard data often creates blind spots of key opportunities or threats. When organizations plan for a single future, they can become stranded by unexpected events and industry shifts.

Make moves, not books. The name “strategic plan” is an oxymoron. Real strategy planning is an ongoing, intelligent response to constantly changing realities. Plans should not be ritualized or annualized. True plans are living, breathing animals that should never be “bound” completely by time or tradition.

Don’t get lost in the process. Planning requires direction and intention. Organizations that wander aimlessly through the process are left unprepared. Successful strategic plans require a clear North Star or strategic path to gain organizational buy-in, passion and alignment and to guide decisions.

Samantha Howland is a senior managing partner at Decision Strategies International, a recognized leader in future-centered consulting. DSI provides adaptive planning and executive development to help some of the world’s leading organizations and their top talent excel. The firm’s customized approach is structured to help clients profit from realities that haven’t happened yet.


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