Tuesday, March 1, 2011

I Still Say Strategic Planning is a Flawed Concept

I received some reader pushback from my previous post where I stated that strategic planning is a flawed concept. Upon further reflection, strategic planning is absolutely a flawed concept. Here's why.

Vision can be accomplished without a plan. In fact, it happens quite often. But it cannot be accomplished without aligned action.

The methodology around creating strategy lies in making choices and setting parameters. The methodology around planning lies in outlining specific actions or tactics that we believe will accomplish a strategy, goal or objective. However, a plan is not the only tactic one can use to take aligned action.

A personal example. I had a vision when I started graduate school almost twenty years ago that someday I would own my own association management company, which I have for the past 10 years. I planned an education and career path to align with that vision. However, I was suddenly offered a completely unexpected opportunity that I was able to recognize aligned with my vision.

Within 24 hours I acted on the opportunity, without a plan, and literally spent the next year or two making it up as I went along. I had no time for market research, environmental scanning or a business plan -- all the stuff business schools say you're supposed to do to be successful. The opportunity came November 25. My day job ended on December 15 and by January 1, the doors to my business were open with customers knocking (note the additional factor of the Holiday time-frame). Due to the nature of the opportunity, I had no choice but to do it this way.

In the process of running the business, I learned everything they say you're supposed to study before you start a business. Nevertheless, I don't believe I would have been any more successful with the startup had I had more time to plan. (My pre-designed career plan, incidentally, had me accomplishing my vision five years later than it actually happened.)

In short, a plan is just one tool in the tactical toolbox. Tethering strategy to a plan is like choosing to use only a hammer to build your house. There are other tactical tools, such as:

  • NO plan, just aligned action -- a tool that is particularly effective when many paths are equally viable. Just choose a path aligned with the vision and learn along the way whether you need to change course.
  • Innovation -- a tool that oddly gets short-shrift, where a structured plan may be difficult, if not impossible to construct, due to a lack of known precedent. In other words, you're blazing a new path by trial and error.
  • Appropriate response when blindsided. It happens, plan or no plan.
  • Appropriate response when not blindsided but given no time to plan (e.g., my business opportunity).
  • Market responsive in real time, based on customer feedback/collaboration, but acting within the parameters of the organizational vision/strategic focus.

Again, all that's necessary for successful strategic execution is vision and aligned action. For strategic vision to be successful, leadership should serve as the strategic steward, followers the tactical stewards. (Of note, leadership and followership doesn't necessarily relate to job position in this context; at times, top leadership must engage in tactical activities and line-level personnel must serve as strategy stewards -- they need to "own" the vision independently of top management.)

This leads me to reiterate a previous point: strategy making and tactical execution should remain separate disciplines, though supportive of one another, the first being an exercise of leadership, the second an exercise of followership.

Earlier in this article I said that strategy making revolves around making choices and setting parameters. With this in mind, in upcoming posts, I'll be focusing on the structure for making strategic choices.

And I'll introduce the alternative to strategic planning, which I'll call "Strategic Architecture." I like the Merriam Webster dictionary definition of "architecture" which I'll apply figuratively to this concept: "the art or science of building; specifically: the art or practice of designing and building structures and especially habitable ones." Strategic Architecture involves creating the habitable structure (which is a mindset, not a plan) in which aligned action can thrive.


  1. Jeff, I'll reiterate what I wrote in my last comment. I think strategic planning is a spectacular failure in most associations, so I think we mostly agree there. Let's not spend anymore time on that part of the conversation.

    As you asked in your last post, the real question is what do we do instead? Strategy certainly requires making wise choices, but today the choices are increasingly novel and often entirely new. How do you make good decisions when you don't know what you don't know? Often the biggest obstacle to success is the metacognitive gap between the actual strategic challenges facing the association and the way decision-makers think about those challenges. This is why I advocate that we think about strategy as learning.

    We need to put our focus on the pursuit of purposeful action to spark new value creation and achieve profitability. By approaching strategy as learning, we can connect empathically with our stakeholders, co-create value with them, learn what works through thoughtful experimentation and scale it as necessary. It is a far more organic approach to what has been mostly a mechanistic endeavor, and one that fits well with the rapid transformation underway in our society.

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