Thursday, February 24, 2011

I'm Jeff and I'm a Planaholic - The First Step in Recovery

I've seen a number of articles on why strategic plans fail. Any number of reasons are given:

  • No follow up
  • No one takes ownership for implementation
  • Organizational culture kills the plan
  • The plan is too complicated or too rigid
  • Only top leadership knows the strategy
  • The plan hasn't been communicated

I'm sure if you've been through a strategic planning process more than once, you can add to the list.

When alcoholics or addicts are said to be "in denial," they believe that other people and circumstances are the source of their problem. "If you had my boss, you'd drink, too. . ." I believe organizational leaders are "in denial" about strategic planning. They blame plan failure on "the culture" or "the plan hasn't been well communicated," etc.

The elephant in the room not being addressed is whether the concept of having such a plan in and of itself is the root of the problem, not the various circumstances that lead to its failure.

Strategic planning is fundamentally flawed concept. Think about it. Shouldn't it be a red flag that in order to "make a plan work" you've got to change an organizational culture, realign resources, communicate the plan ad nauseum, restructure, get top leadership buy in, make it flow through the organizational structure, overcome resistance, engage in "change management," and so on?

If the plan is truly disruptive, my experience is an organization ends up losing its "soul" and employees become disillusioned or leave. But more often, the plan isn't executed with enthusiasm and stakeholders just ignore it and wait for this latest management push to "blow over." Even executive leadership eventually gets bored with the plan, goes on autopilot, and does what it's been doing all along.

Occasionally, though, a plan is executed effectively. What I've rarely observed is an organizational transformation occurring as a result of this. More often, the plan's goals are achieved, that's all. We did that, check. And that, check. And that, check. Now let's come up with a new list of things to check off and say we did them.

So if strategic planning is a flawed concept, what's the alternative? Let's reconsider where plans fail: culture, communication, alignment, and execution. As leaders, that's where we should spend our time. Forget a structured plan. Focus instead on the culture and structure that facilitates acting on the BIG IDEA (vision).

Our efforts should center around designing strategic focus, not a strategic plan.

When a group of people walking downtown decides they want to have Chinese food, they don't need to stop, analyze and draw up a detailed action plan. Once the decision is made, one person gets on their smart phone and figures out where the nearest Chinese restaurants are. Another person says "Oh, I've heard about that one on Main Street. It's supposed to be great." Someone else calls the restaurant to check if reservations are needed or if there's a long wait. When they pick the restaurant they want, they all head for it and have a great time.

If the goal is clear and simple, people will create their own action plans naturally. Individuals will choose their roles and their paths in fulfilling the vision. Leadership's role is simply to facilitate the big choice -- Chinese or Italian?


  1. The problem with strategic planning is not that it's a flawed concept, but a failed approach. It is a way of thinking about value creation that assumes the association knows everything it needs to know to create, deliver and capture value for its stakeholders. When the organization realizes that in a time of great turbulence and uncertainty it will never be omniscient, planning fails.

    Strategy as planning needs to give way to strategy as learning, in which associations co-create value with their stakeholders through a continuous cycle of building empathic insight, focused experimentation and the rapid application of real-world learning.

    Considering how long associations have been doing strategic planning and the enormous failure those plans have been at the task of preparing organizations in our community for the future, associations are long overdue to abandon the tools of the past and embrace new ways of thinking about the future.

  2. Jeff, I agree with your comments about planning needing to give way to strategy as learning and co-creating value with stakeholders. I still feel strongly that strategic planning is indeed a flawed concept, but I'll explain in detail in my next post. I believe your vision on planning supports the points I make.