‘Tis the season for strategic planning workshops and Executive love-ins.

These strategy efforts are funny beasts.

After a burst of initial enthusiasm, a document is produced that is replete with noble and high-sounding ‘motherhood’ statements which typically meet with passing scorn from staff.

As one of the foremost authors on public sector and not-for-profit strategic planning (John M. Bryson) correctly writes:

…many leaders and managers no doubt groan at the prospect of having to go through another round of strategic planning. They may have ‘been there, done that’ and, depending on their experience, may not want to do it again! … Managers in particular are frequently, and justifiably, tired of ‘buzzword bingo’ and feel as if they are the victims of some sort of perverse management hazing or status degradation ritual.

Yet the idea of clarifying what’s important, and organising to adapt to it, remains fundamentally sound. After all, how can you marshal the efforts of individuals into joint performance without doing some version of this?

Having first studied and read about strategy and strategic planning in the early 1990s and been involved with it at various points since that time, it seems to me that…

  • A great many organisations (most, in fact) operate in a fog with unclear or only half-developed ideas about where their strengths lie, what their core competencies are, how to connect with key stakeholders (or even who their stakeholders are) or where their organisations are particularly vulnerable

  • These organisations flit between imperatives, or lurch from crisis to crisis, or are unable to grasp opportunities as they arise

  • Unsurprisingly in this context, it takes an uncommon amount of effort to create an eddy in the river of day-to-day ephemera in which to give some time and attention to identify and crystallise the two or three priorities on which to focus

  • Any identified priorities are rendered virtually immediately obsolete by the flux of everyday events. This is what gives strategic planning its ‘dead on arrival’ attribute (after which a document spends the term of its natural life in the bottom drawer).

What’s the way out of this benign but ineffective quagmire?

While we must deal with the flux of day-to-day imperatives, these loom so large precisely because strengths, opportunities, competencies, challenges and priorities are not crystallised: there’s no compass to guide us through the welter to true north.

This is the case because competencies, strengths, challenges are hard to determine. Which brings me to the first key to meaningful strategic planning: it takes time, sustained effort, constructive argument, discipline, some data gathering and analysis, and a lot of back-and-forth to sift the strategic wheat from the chaff. It will take more than a one-and-a-half day workshop.

For the most part, it will be about as speedy as wading through treacle. A lot of the effort, even with best endeavours, will go nowhere, and the diligent strategic planning pilgrim will traverse many blind alleys.

It is the task of the organisation’s (or division’s, or unit’s) leader to provide the frame in which this sustained staggering and stumbling towards the truth can occur. It’s not sexy; it’s not saleable; and for the most part it won’t be fun. It requires courage, candour, a thick hide, and an ability to check egos at the door.

This is a big ask, and few leaders will be up to it. But it must be done. Clarity can’t be achieved without it.

Which brings me to the second ingredient for meaningful strategic planning: the necessary platform for this conversation is a clearly articulated view of the present. Note, not the future, the present. Very few leaders or organisations actually have a clear understanding of the value they provide, what their key customers think of them, or the major shifts in their market, industry or political landscape. Contrary to what we think, the present is not immediately self-evident. Before going anywhere near what should be there needs to be a clearly articulated view of what is. What should be, will then properly emerge. Just trust me on this. A problem well-defined is a problem half-solved. The strategic way forward will emerge from a full, frank, evidence-backed articulation of the present strategic landscape.

This is not a dry exercise. Grasping the patterns in the kaleidoscope of the present requires insight, creativity, industry knowledge and experience. Then the way forward will become apparent. And after that comes the task of degenerating into action, of implementing with rigour and active follow-up.

So where does this leave the January strategy effort?

Rather than a one-off workshop or love-in, I recommend a series of strategy sessions in which facets of the landscape can be researched, drawn out and vigorously discussed. This should entail a detailed review of 2013, and include:

  • Who are our key stakeholders?
  • What do they think of our performance?
  • What worked well in 2013? Why? What were the causes of these successes?
  • What didn’t work well in 2013? Where did we mess up? Why?
  • Where did we have the greatest impact?

Once there has been back-and-forth on this, draw together the threads into a handful of issues or implications for 2014, which may be condensed into a couple of priorities, and then a series of related actions to address them. Then report against these at regular Executive meetings throughout the year (at least monthly.)

This will anchor the effort in a solid dose of reality, where great effort has been made to properly distinguish that reality.

At many junctures this will all seem too hard, too unproductive, too abstract. I’m encouraging you to stick with it and push through. The clarity will come. Just stay with it.

With best regards,
Michael Carman
Director I Michael Carman Consulting
PO Box 686, Petersham NSW 2049 I M: 0414 383 374

© Michael Carman 2014