Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Strategic Planning is Old School

As I've explained in this series, strategic planning is an old school approach that is not strategic and focuses leadership in the wrong place. Let's look at the fundamentals of the "new school" of strategic leadership.

We'll begin by replacing the "Strategic Planning Pyramid" with a "Strategic Leadership Pyramid," both illustrated below for comparative purposes.

As stated in previous posts, what we've been calling "strategic planning" is really operational, not strategic; it is, in fact, project planning methodology. And this methodology is fine when it is applied to project management. In fact, it's the best approach to take when hard deadlines exist and detailed action plans are critical. For example, it is ideal for planning conferences/trade shows, product launches, construction projects, marketing plans, publications, etc. Anything that has logical steps, firm deadlines and lots of details.

But it's the wrong tool for strategic leadership. Values aren't steps in a plan. Vision is not a project and it doesn't have a deadline. A strategy is a choice, a focus, not a destination, and it requires an agility that a written plan can't provide. Organizational culture doesn't operate using goals, objectives and action plans. Attitudes and mindset can't be effectively influenced by a plan.

But the opposite is true. Execution of vision, strategies, goals, etc., is influenced by organizational culture, attitudes and mindset -- particularly if they are unsupportive.

What are vision/values/culture driven by? People. Not process. Therefore, the most effective approach to ensure vision execution is one that is people-focused, not process-focused. That means focusing on mindset (people), not goals/objectives and action plans (process).

In a previous post entitled "Leadership Needs to Focus in the Right Place to Build a Strategic Organization" I stated that with traditional strategic planning approaches, an inordinate amount of time is spent on management/operations activities where leadership should spend NO TIME AT ALL, and strategic planning methodology quickly shifts the focus from leadership to management.

You'll note that none of the activities in the Strategic Leadership Pyramid include goals, objectives, action plans, key performance metrics, etc. If those who execute on vision (including top leadership) want to use goals, objectives and action plans as part of their operational methodology for executing on vision, great. Goals, objectives and action plans are good tools for personal time management, as well as focusing team activities when accomplishing complex projects.

But as I've also previously written ("I Still Say Strategic Planning is a Flawed Concept"), planning and goal-setting methodologies are just one among many tactical approaches to taking actions aligned with organizational vision, and not always the best approach.

Explaining the Layers

Aspirational Culture is at the top, not Vision. Why? As I explained in "Alignment Comes Before Vision," the "way we do things around here" supersedes desired outcomes. By necessity, leadership focus must begin here. "Aspirational Culture" means the desired way we work together as an organization. Before we begin crafting vision statements, we need to be sure we have clarity on the organization's "personality," the unwritten rules of behavior. We should know in advance of crafting a vision whether the organizational culture will support it. If not, we need to work on building our aspirational culture first.

A note of caution here. It's tempting to judge organizational culture traits as "good" or "bad." For example, if you are a creative, daring and innovative person, you may view an organization with a culture that is conservative and risk averse as "behind the times" or "unwilling to step out of its comfort zone." However, such an organization might be highly effective and successful if its vision plays to its culture. For example, even though it may not be innovative, perhaps it creates traditional, timeless quality products with unparalleled craftsmanship, which gives it a competitive edge in the market.

What makes organizational culture problematic is when it lacks alignment on identity, values, ethics or trust. To illustrate a lack of alignment on identity, I'll go back to the previous example. If leadership and fraction of the staff is daring and innovative but the vast majority of the organization is conservative and risk averse, the ability to find alignment around a vision focused on innovation will be highly compromised.

Vision and values are among the few items from the Strategic Planning Pyramid that remain on the Strategic Leadership Pyramid. They belong there because they are aspirational and inspirational, not operational or tactical.

Strategic focus areas are another area of crossover. Obviously, strategies are strategic. Enough said. But, for further thoughts on strategy, see "Strategy, Plain and Simple" and "Haiku Strategy."

Co-creating and telling the story means, let's describe vision and strategic focus in a compelling story format that is memorable and actionable. And the story needs to have specific relevance. That means, it's not just leadership's story. As the office receptionist, I know my part of the story, and it's personal, not general. And I can articulate it and play the role, too. I'll get into further detail on how to do this in future posts, but I touch on the concept in "Developing Intuitive Alignment."

Last -- and this is where strategy gets operationalized in case you're wondering how strategic focus becomes manageable and measurable without the goals, objectives, action plans and the like -- is Ongoing Strategic Conversations. Instead of going back into an operational, project management-type approach, this approach requires ongoing strategic conversations with the operationalizers. The conversations focus on inputs, not outputs. They involve asking questions that surface incorporation of the vision and strategies into the various roles in the organization. I'll go into detail on this in future posts, as well.

In short, this approach provides a blueprint for keeping leadership focused in the right place -- on leadership (people), not management (process).

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Alignment Comes Before Vision

Typical management methodology has leaders develop a vision and then work within the organization to build alignment around it. The order is backwards; before creating vision, create alignment.

As I said in my last post, I'm offering a viewpoint counter to prevailing wisdom about strategic leadership. Not only am I advocating abandoning strategic planning methodology entirely, but many of the foundational management principles upon which it is based. This includes the ubiquitous "strategy pyramid," which has at the top "vision/mission" working down to goals, objectives and action plans.

Vision is not at the top of my strategic leadership pyramid, and goals, objectives and action plans aren't on it at all (read my previous posts if you want to know why).

So, if you don't have vision at the top, then what the heck are followers "aligning" around, you might ask? Aspirational culture. Organizational culture dominates behavior. What's more important than where we're going is how we intend to work together to get there. To create a strategic organization, we need to reverse the order: first create alignment, then create vision.

Knowing this, our first order of business ought not to be choosing our destination port, but making sure the crewmembers have shared values about how we're going to work together on the ship. We don't want to discover we have the ingredients for a mutiny in place after we've already set sail.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins explains that the companies that made the transition from good to great focused first on who (alignment), then what (vision). Getting the right people on the bus first was more important than having the right business strategy. As he put it, in a great organization, people want to be on the bus because of who else is on it. Or, to say it another way: it's about the journey, not the destination.

One thing (among many) that differentiates strategic alignment methodology from strategic planning methodology is keeping in the forefront “who, then what.” This means before even coming up with strategy, first examining whether we have alignment in relation to how we work together.

In my post Beyond The Plan: A New Approach to Strategic Leadership I offered a well-known quote often attributed to Peter Drucker: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." And proferred that, like individuals, organizations have personalities, which we commonly refer to as "organizational culture."

How often do strategic planning efforts fail due to lack of execution, organizational culture, etc.? Afterwords, leaders wring their hands trying to figure out how they could have better communicated the vision, overcome the cultural hurdles and employee attitudes about the strategy. They engage in futile "change management" exercises, etc.

The problem is they’re trying to “reverse engineer” the personality and unwritten rules of the organization, taking apart what they have, trying to rebuild it to fit the vision. That’s hard work -- quite often futile -- and I’m not a fan of working harder, but working smarter.

The reason we want to take time to clarify organizational culture -- the rules of engagement --first, then align vision to organizational culture is 1) it's a lot less work and 2) people will intuitively act in alignment with the vision if it aligns with the culture. In other words, they will act in alignment with organizational vision and strategy automatically if they're aligned with "the way we do things."

If "the way we do things" is destructive or dysfunctional, before attempting vision, leaders need to work on building the aspirational culture.