I have a love-hate perspective of strategic planning. Let me start with what I hate.
Hate #1: The binder on the shelf
I hate strategic planning that delivers a binder filled with data that buries the essence of the process. Once on the shelf, no one ever pulls the damn thing off for any reason, not even the people who put it together. The process of getting to the binder does have value because the process is the thing. Having gone through a process of considering the future and where they want to take their teams, managers have had something important imbedded in their brains, often unconsciously, that guides them to fulfilling the vision. The binder is no more help than the elf on the shelf at Christmas, and just as annoying.
Hate #2: Creating dozens of project plans from the strategic plan
One company worked with a consultant who helped them craft a strategic plan that generated three strategic “pillars” under which multiple projects proliferated prepared by the “lieutenants” of the “captains” of the “pillars”. A whopping total of more than 24 plans were developed with varying degrees of specificity. Another company identified 10 – yes, TEN – initiatives from their strategic planning process.
I had one practical question for them: When are you supposed to implement these plans in the midst of doing the work of the business? If this amassing of project plans sounds like a waste of time, you have hit upon why they are ill-conceived and unhelpful: they amount to make-work. More specifically, make-work under the direction of consultants who strive to demonstrate they are adding value when they are simply detracting from what really matters: good work. Good work makes a difference to the organization, the people who work there, the people they serve and their communities.
Hate #3: Little or no integration
I could simply say “See #2” because time wasted on peripheral project plans is often central to the lack of integration. Time spent on unworkable project plans is time not spent identifying what needs to happen with the work of the business as a result of the strategic plan. If nothing changes with the day-to-day work, then the organization cannot actually get where they want to go. Something has to change to make space and capacity to accomplish the direction envisioned in the strategic plan process. The adjustments aren’t necessarily big, but, over time, the shifts in how work is done create significant changes.
Hate #4: Short timeframe
The benchmark for strategic plans is two to three years. And this timeframe is reasonable…as long as it doesn’t limit the bigger vision for the organization. In Built to Last, Jim Collins refers to these visions as BHAGs – Big Hairy Audacious Goals. In his words, “BHAGs are bold, falling in the gray area where reason and prudence might say ‘This is unreasonable,’ but the drive for progress says, ‘We believe we can do it nonetheless.’ ”
Consultants have latched onto the concept without clear understanding of what those goals actually entail for an organization – how big should the goals be and how long will they take to achieve. Okay, to be fair, some consultants get it…usually the ones who have spent a fair amount of their career leading teams in accomplishing BHAGs as part of their organization’s vision and plans. BHAGs take effort to change processes, which require integration, collaboration and commitment throughout an organization, which takes time and focus. BHAGs aren’t the vision itself but the strategy to get to the vision. Which means, one or two BHAGs every two to three years to get to that 10 or even 20-year vision.
Hate #5: Missing the point of strategic planning
Too many organizations enter into strategic planning processes as if the “plan” is the point. It isn’t. Fulfilling the organization’s purpose in the midst of the constantly changing marketplace and communities is the point. The purpose of the process is to reflect on the current hits and misses; to consider what it will take to do more and better for the people and communities served by the organization.
This last statement may make it sound as though I am referring to nonprofits. Not the case. For-profit companies that exist for a mission bigger than the necessary profits they generate do better for their teams, their customers, and the communities. Why are people leaving some organizations in droves? Why are some companies struggling to hire and retain while others retain more and struggle less with recruiting? It comes down to purpose, culture and leadership.
Note that I did not say profit was not important: no profit, no company, no way to fulfill the mission. Profit is required to ensure sustainability. But profit without a grounding in mission sucks the energy and joy out of the work. Sure, lots of profitable companies don’t focus on purpose. In the short run, they will do fine, even great for their executives and investors. But, eventually, there will be a fumble, a choice or series of choices that spiral out of control. Remember Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, Lehman Brothers.
What I love about strategic planning arises in part but not fully from the flip side of what I hate.
Love #1: Purpose is central
The planning process reconnects and grounds people in why the organization exists. The purpose of the organization – the mission that drives the work and guides the decisions of executives and their teams – can get clouded in the day-to-day tasks without periodically reflecting on where they came from and what they have learned in the journey.
Love #2: The work matters
Taking a step back to look back, people recognize that the work they do matters. Not just for their pay check or driving the success of the organization, but to those they serve and the communities in which they live. It confirms for people why they work as hard as they do and the difference they are making.
Love #3: People already are thinking about the future
The process uncovers and confirms what has been percolating just beneath the surface. All the “what-ifs” and “I-wonder-abouts” bubble up and out in the conversations about where the organization could go with the right investment, the right people, and the right focus.
Love #4: The hurdles are real
The process shines the spotlight on the challenges to fulfilling the mission and what is possible when those challenges are faced head-on. Doing the work the way it has always been done is soul-withering and business stagnating. Problems and missteps can lead to making the work better and innovations that go beyond incremental improvements. The question of what is getting in the way is among the most critical to defining the future.
Love #5: The vision hits the mark and they feel the connection
There is a moment after the hard and no-fun work of articulating the vision when people feel the rightness of the words that describe the vision. That moment never gets old. The words come together in the most extraordinary way. People throw out words and phrases that churn and bounce off each other until somehow – almost magically – the right connections happen and the words align and vibrate with the energy of the first notes of a symphony. These few words sum up the two or at most three strategies that will echo throughout the organization, creating a cascade of adjustments and changes that lead to the future imagined.
Of course, the articulation of the vision and the fleshing out of the strategies is only the beginning. As executives and managers take the concepts to their teams, the work begins to adjust, sometimes only recognized in retrospect, as teams and individuals collaborate and integrate their work in ways that improve results and drive toward the vision. The work is rarely easy and is never without hurdles and setbacks. Sometimes the setbacks cause adjustments to the strategies, even to the point of dropping a strategy that isn’t working. But fulfilling the mission and honing in on the vision bring focus and increase engagement throughout the organization.
In the end of any decision making process, whether that involves strategic planning, retention, or one of the other myriad processes confronting business managers and supervisors, only one thing matters: Good people doing great work to make the world better.