Strategic planning should be a powerful, useful, and energizing exercise for your team, company, agency, or organization. It should build your capacity. And you should do it when you know that your environment, your stakeholders, or the times are calling you do something different. I love both training folks in strategic planning and supporting my clients to do it. Here are some common misconceptions concerning strategic planning that I often see.
1. Strategic Planning Is Quick and Easy
2. Strategic Planning Is the Same as an Annual Work Plan
3. An Outside Consultant Can Generate Your Strategic Plan
4. Strategic Planning Is Only an Activity for the C-Suite or Top Leadership of Your Organization or Agency.
5. Once a Strategic Plan Is Generated, It Is Complete.
Let me explain…
1. Strategic Planning Is Quick and Easy. Nope- like anything worthwhile, it’s an investment. When folks call and ask if I can help them do a strategic plan in two hours, I just say no. A strategic plan is just that – strategic. It should not be rushed. The opportunity it presents is that the process should merit thoughtfulness, allow for consideration of possibilities, invite creativity and critique, and afford us a precious time to move beyond “the how” to really reconsider “the what”. This is what Chris Argyris describes Single Loop Learning versus Double Loop Learning (HBR, September 1977). So what is a reasonable timeframe? Every organization, agency or business is different, but typical strategic plans can take anywhere from a two-day retreat to a six-month discernment process.
2. Strategic Planning Is the Same as an Annual Work Plan. No, they are related and need to align but quite different. An annual work plan describes the current year’s staff or even board priorities and implementation responsibilities. A strategic plan should stretch the organization’s, agency’s or company’s vision and plans out into the future 2-3 or 3-5 years. A strategic plan should not be comprised of the same workload that an annual work plan represents - that would be overwhelming and unrealistic, unless you have employees that are working at only half their capacity. Instead it should reflect catalytic or strategic actions and/or shifts in current work that move a team in new directions articulated through the planning. Finally, it should produce implementable and substantial actions that can be incorporated into annual work plans.
3. An Outside Consultant Can Generate Your Strategic Plan. Not if you want your people to implement any of it. Requests for an outside consultant to do some kind of environmental scan or industry research, analyze your company’s position in that field and its services and delivery, and voila – wave their magic wand and come up for a perfect plan for your organization are at minimum ineffective and can be a huge waste of resources, time, and credibility. Organization change and transformation are not spectator sports. The people most impacted must also have an opportunity to shape, give input, and contribute their gifts and knowledge to that change. By doing so, you are able to garner ownership, build internal capacity, and avoid expending great efforts to somehow generate buy-in for someone else’s plan. This is why I use Technology of Participation® methods and tools, because the more effective engagement that goes into your plan, the better solutions and more widespread and effective implementation of the plan going forward.
4. Strategic Planning Is Only for the C-Suite or Top Leadership of Your Organization or Agency. No, everyone in your organization should participate in/contribute to strategic planning in some way. It’s too easy for leadership to become isolated. The leadership echo chamber is well documented in the organization development literature (Senge, Bolman & Deal, etc.). Strategic planning processes offer an opportunity to engage stakeholders such as employees, customers, clients, funders, communities, and partner organizations in new and exciting ways. It is in our DNA to give advice (Schein), so stakeholders are usually very willing and offer valuable perspectives not found in the C-Suite. In addition, the act of engagement at the very least generates goodwill and more often ownership and social capital. Just make sure the engagement is authentic and around questions that have not already been answered. Finally, I think every team or division should have it’s own strategic plan that aligns with the overarching organizational strategic plan. Everyone should understand how their work contributes and aligns with the organizational goals and vision.
5. Once a Strategic Plan Is Generated, It Is Complete. Not so fast. Organizations that invest the resources to do strategic planning well, are missing a huge part of the return on investment when they consider the planning complete after a written plan is generated. I suggest that once a plan is produced, then the next phase is one of “working the plan”. “Working the plan” means incorporating SMART first-year accomplishments into an annual work plan, ensuring that your whole organization aligns with the strategic vision and is clear how each employee is contributing to that vision, and most importantly that there are quarterly opportunities to celebrate accomplishments, reflect on learnings, and recalibrate the next quarter’s work. And don’t forget to keep engaging your stakeholders in your organizational transformation!
So in summary…strategic planning shouldn’t be rushed. Invest the time and resources to gather input and build consensus for the change process. This means involving your stakeholders, not just your leadership team working with a consultant. This is critical to gaining a bigger perspective and organizational ownership. Make sure your strategic plan is implementable and incorporated into work plans. And then don’t stop there. Keep “working the plan” to get the greatest ROI out of your efforts and ensuring your plan evolves and keeps up-to-date.
Next up…what are some great resources for doing and understanding strategic planning.