• Bob McCulloch

Strategic Planning is Dead


It’s becoming clear that strategic “planning” is dead. Or at least no longer particularly useful when approached in the way we’ve done it over the past few decades. It was fine for the time – it’s just that conditions have changed, and we’ve learned more along the way.


What’s changed? Everything. And nothing.


Everything’s changed

The dynamics of the “business” world are increasingly more complex making it difficult if not impossible to predict our future environment with any degree of comfort or certainty. Think here of uberization, the Internet of Things, AI, blockchain, and shifts in consumer attitudes and behaviours. And that holds true for corporations, governments, and not-for-profits.


While we’ve seen this kind of change before – the industrial revolution, automobiles, telephones, cellular networks – we’ve never seen it come at us with such speed and magnitude. Remember that the first iPhone was launched only a dozen years ago.


This means for some that strategic planning is useless, since as soon as we complete our plan, something out there changes and our plan is obsolete.


Nothing’s changed

We are all still human, and that means we have the core work-oriented motivations that have driven us for millennia: wanting to “get to a better place.” How we get there might be along some different paths, but the motivation and the thinking process is much the same.


So what?

From our perspective, what is needed is a subtle shift in our mindset from strategic planning to strategic thinking. And in fact, it’s how we’ve been counselling our clients for several years and facilitating them through the process to create powerful, sustainable, and adaptable strategies to support their forward moves.


The intent is to get to the point where each executive can, and does, connect their actions and the actions of their staff to the statements of strategic direction they have collectively agreed upon. The challenge is to have the group determine the best way for each member of the management team to “keep the end in mind” while pursuing the day-to-day tasks.


In terms of how we migrate from strategic planning to strategic thinking, the first step is to understand that the real value is in the conversation. The plan itself is useful, although now it’s more of a record of our strategic choices at a point in time and space. The goal of the conversation is to build a shared understanding around the answers to the key strategic questions. Those key questions are, simply put,

1. Why do we exist?

2. Where do we intended to be in X years?

3. How best do we get there?

4. What’s next?


Why we exist…

The importance of this question lies in testing our assumptions about what value we bring to our customers, how they are better off because we exist, and why we can do it better than anyone else. Our initial value proposition may no longer be valid so we need to re-think and re-frame it.


Where we intend to get to…

In preparation for answering the second question, we need a clear understanding of what’s happening in our environment – verifiable linear and cyclical trends, emerging technologies, market shifts. We can then see the threats and opportunities we need to deal with. With this backdrop, we pursue the dialogue around what we want and intend to be at some point on the horizon, whether that be five years, 20 years, or six months.


Getting there…

The third question deals with how we’re going to move from where we are now to that next picture of “success.” This means understanding what talents and capabilities we will need to build or acquire, as well as what we will need to leave behind. While we can scope this out at a high level, the answers here will be a continual work in progress, staying sensitive to shifts in our environment so we can be “intelligently opportunistic,” looking at alternative strategies better suited to a changing environment.


Next steps…

Here is the point where the shift occurs from strategic dialogue to strategic action. It’s where the leadership puts initiatives in place to build broad understanding of and support for the directional choices, and launch specific action to further shape and implement these choices.


From here on, the leaders need to continue to refer back to the statements of direction and assess, “How is the action I’m taking or decision I making now move us towards that described future reality?”


This is the strategic thinking mindset, in which we are clear about our next “end in mind,” are staying resolved to that end without attachment to the “how we get there,” and staying intelligently open to opportunities.

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