Monday, March 14, 2011

Beyond The Plan: A New Approach to Strategic Leadership - Part 1

By now it's clear I aim to kill strategic planning methodology. And, yes, there is an alternative. But I won't call it that because it's a false comparison. If you believe there could be a better way, read on.

Sometimes I wonder why I'm taking on this cause because strategic planning is a standard exercise at many, if not most, organizations. So much so that many smart people mindlessly use it as a prescription for all organizational ills.

"Having problems, eh? Do you have a strategic plan? If you do, when was the last time you looked at it?"

As if the reason why an organization is failing is because it doesn't have a strategic plan or isn't using it.

And when I say traditional strategic planning methodology places leadership's focus in the wrong place, the standard response is: "The problem isn't the plan, it's the execution."

What's the difference? Why would there be any problems implementing something truly transformative? The answer is: because strategic plans are not truly transformative. If they were, you'd encounter less resistance to them.

Platitudes are the other standard response:

"Much calculation (planning) brings triumph. Little calculation brings defeat. How much more so with no calculation." Sun Tzu

I hear this one a lot! First Place winner.

"If you fail to plan, plan to fail."

Second Place winner.

As though invoking ancient wisdom about strategy, plans and tactics should put an end to the discussion once and for all.

Such responses indicate people really don't have a cogent argument to defend strategic planning methodology; they just know strategic planning must be a good thing because sages say so. (Whether that's actually what the sages say is an argument for another day.) Or, there must be something to it because everyone does it.

Now I invoke my own platitude and blog motto: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few." Shunryu Suzuki

So many people "drink the Kool-Aid" around strategic planning methodology that I have to request a "beginner's mind."

In the beginner's mind, everything is new. When we look at things with a beginner's mind, it means we look at them as if we've never seen them before.

If you're a veteran strategic planning consultant, forget what you know -- just for now. If after you've read what I have to say using a "beginner's mind," you still believe you're on the right path, feel free to reject my notions.

The conversation I began in my last post, will continue with this one and several following, is about a different way of approaching strategic leadership.

My initial posts won't give much meat about the "how to's" of the new way. Shifting mindset is a prerequisite. Opening the mind takes time.

So, let's get started.

Something obvious that's overlooked is people naturally execute on vision.

If you decided at some point in life "what you wanted to be when you grew up" -- and I'm not talking about the 6-year-old child ideas, but the real ones arrived at with mature clarity -- it's unlikely you drew up a detailed plan and executed on it step-by-step (I realize some may have done exactly this. But most didn't.). You simply took aligned action with your dream.

Planning may have played a role to help you focus at certain points, but overall, you intuitively knew the things you needed to do and what you didn't know, you asked others for help.

So that's the first point. Taking aligned action toward a desired outcome (vision/strategy) is innate and natural.

How do we naturally do it? We think about what actions might get us where we want to go and make some decisions. Yes, we may do some structured written planning if it helps us focus -- or we may not. We start taking actions, some planned, some not, and learn along the way what works for us and what doesn't. Sometimes we encounter and act on unexpected opportunities that bring us toward the goal. When we hit roadblocks, we may ask others for help, a "new set of eyes" if we can't figure out the next move, or just go around the roadblock. Sometimes when we're not even actively pursuing our vision, we'll hear someone say something that gives us an "a-hah" moment, even though the discussion had nothing to do with our vision.

In short, the vision is always running in the back of our mind and we take persistent, aligned action toward achieving it.

How each of us reaches our vision is different. Some of us are structured, others free-spirited. Some of us are analytical, others intuitive. Some of us innovate, others use tried-and-true best practices. But it's safe to say that you've probably met people that match each description who you would describe as "successful."

The problem arises when we place value judgments on personalities. Structured people see free-spirited people as undisiciplined and erratic. Innovators see the tried-and-truers as small minded. Analyticals think intuitive people do everything by the seat of their pants. And so on.

So what does this have to do with strategic planning methodology?

You already may be connecting the dots. It's not the natural or only approach many take to achieve vision. Although detailed point-by-point planning may be embraced by some, usually the analyticals, operations directors, project managers, engineers, military folks, etc., it's not the preferred approach by others.

And, just as you can point to successful individuals that run the gamut from structured to free-spirited, innovative to tried-and-true, you can also point to successful organizations of each "personality type."

What every successful organization has in common, whether they have a strategic plan (that they look at or don't) or no plan at all is that they take persistent actions aligned with a vision.

Forcing an organization to adopt a single approach not aligned to its personality --commonly referred to as organizational culture -- is like asking someone who doesn't like brussel sprouts to "learn to love them." Not gonna happen.

I hate to do it, but I'll throw in another platitude I heard that's true from my own experience: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast."

So the first Beginner's Mind thought exercise I'll offer you is to think about the connection between human personality types and organizational personality types (culture), and how they affect strategy execution. Recall some points from my previous posts that tactical planning is a management tool, not a leadership tool, and just one of many tactical tools that can be used in strategic execution.