Are we making Strategic Planning harder than it needs to be?

by Derek Winter


A few conversations I’ve been having recently about strategy and strategic planning have left me wondering whether we make it all too complicated; more complicated that it is or needs to be.

In essence it’s about setting goals which are tangible and well enough defined that we know whether or not we’re progressing towards them and when we’ve achieved them.

Once we know our goals - our horizon - it’s about deciding on the approach we’re taking to get there. Strategy isn’t what we say or write, it’s what we do. There’s always more than one way to get where we want to go, and it’s as much about what we’re saying “no” to as it is about what we say “yes” to. 

Once we know our strategy, it’s then about shorter term tactical activities that help us progress towards the goals we’ve set. There isn’t one single right answer; strategy is about making choices about an uncertain future and being willing to try an approach which will most likely need to be adjusted as we go.

A blog post last year by Bill Conerly did a decent job of distilling Richard Rumelt’s book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy making 3 main points. Learn to say no, Connect (every day) actions to the strategy; and make those action clear and concrete (not vague and fluffly).

Essentially, his point is that each day when we turn up to work we should have a clear understanding about what to do - what to say no to, what to focus on - that will contribute to our strategy and get us closer to our goals.

I would like to suggest two other factors that are worth keeping in mind. Firstly, that we need to remember that whether or not we progress our strategy and reach our goals is all about people, so ensuring the people affected are involved from the beginning of the process is also vital. Secondly, that a ‘strategic plan’ should never be set in stone, so at relevant (short) intervals, it needs to be actively reviewed and revised based on progress and circumstances to remain relevant.

In my experience, researching and analysing the external influences on our organisations - the things we need to react to that are outside our control - and thinking through the implications that has for us as an organisation is something that most leaders are reasonably comfortable and familiar with. This process answers the questions “What does the future context look like over our planning period?”, “What are the implications of that forecast for our industry?”, “What does the future shape of our industry mean for our organisation?” I believe there is one further level of questioning that is less familiar and comfortable which is “(Therefore) What will the organisation require of me?”

More importantly, what often gets left out of the strategic planning process is the reverse line of questioning which look at the pro-active influence we can (and should) have on our organisations future as leaders.

Whereas the process of considering the implications of the external environment can be considered “outside-in” the process for this is inside-out and answers the questions “What legacy do I want to leave behind as a Leader?”, “How will the organisation be different if I achieve those goals?”, “What impact do we want our organisation have on our industry?” and if you really want to be audacious, “What difference should our industry make in the world?”

Done well this will help each leader be connected to the overall goals and strategy and understand the part they play, but it will also make it personal. It will provide each with a personal context for what they do, why they do it and how it contributes to the overall goals and aspirations of the organisation. These two factors will greatly increase the chance of commitment and success.