How to Redeem Strategic Planning

Strategic planning is a peculiar creature.

On the one hand, the planning workshops, executive love-ins and glossy documents appear year after year with unabated regularity.

Yet on the other hand, the workshops and love-ins are quickly forgotten, the glossy document – though widely distributed – is never read, despite its noble sentiments and high sounding oratory, and the whole affair is regarded with scepticism and cynicism.

Here are six tips to guide your organisation’s next strategic planning effort so it has a greater chance of yielding results and steering clear of cynicism.

Tip 1: Start and finish with real business problems

The real business problems at the client interface should be the starting point – and the end point – of strategic analysis. While the mandate for strategic planning has to start at the top of the organisation, that’s not the place for the strategic analysis to begin. Too often it does, which is why so many strategic plans are laden with generalities and platitudes (‘be customer focused’). Start at the periphery of the organisation if you want your strategic plan to have operational ‘bite’ and check at the end of the process that there has been improvement there.

Tip 2: Define what success and effectiveness look like

Too often, organisations get through the planning year without having a distinct idea what a successful year actually constitutes.

Posing the question “What actually defines results and success for us?” is a powerful and illuminating question for any organisation.

Tip 3: Keep it real

Check the lip-service at the door. Ensuring there’s authenticity in the planning process creates value for an organisation in and of itself. Where there is executive posturing to win the attention and favour of the CEO or Director General, ensure it doesn’t get the oxygen breathed into it that can turn it into major strategic input. Park it somewhere where it can be safely consigned to oblivion.

Tip 4: Build action into the plan

Stack the deck in favour of action and implementation, rather than making them seem like niceties which may or may not occur. Provide clear accountabilities and report against them regularly.

Tip 5: Favour impact over ‘comprehensiveness’

The purpose of a strategic plan is to improve the clarity of your organisation’s thinking and efforts, not to provide a written naming ceremony for every departmental division. As such, a strategic plan should focus on the key areas where particular effort will likely yield the greatest impact, rather than comprehensively mapping every aspect of the organisation’s activities. A partial plan that produces results will, hands-down, beat an unwieldy ‘comprehensive’ plan  removed from the operational realities of the organisation, every time.

Tip 6: Keep the strategy loose

While strategic planning aims to improve the performance of the organisation, the trick is to not be dogmatic about how outcomes are accomplished. While the results should be clear enough so you know whether they’ve been accomplished, there should be some ‘give’ in how those results are achieved.



This is an edited version of an article originally appearing in Government News in November 2008

© Michael Carman 2010-2012