Strategic planning – is it outmoded?

“Why do strategic planning?  Things are just going to change, anyway!”

Improving business performance is what every executive is trying to make happen.  Busy executives are faced with the question of how to apply their scarce resources to produce this result.  Many ask – why bother with strategic planning – we will just have to throw it out when something changes, so, isn’t it a waste of time?

OK – you’ve got me here – I am going to defend the value of strategic planning – after all, that’s one of the main areas where I am working with organizations.  I wouldn’t be doing it if we don’t see real results.  We do, and you can see them, too.

Here a few things to think about, if the question about how much effort to put into strategy work is one you are weighing:

1.  “Planning” – no word seems to conjure up more confusion than this one.  For so many the word “planning” brings back bad memories of a heavyweight process, involving endless weeks of manipulating spreadsheets, Microsoft Project – or other tools that, in the end, can become so overwrought with detail and cumbersome that they are of no real use.  The end results become static, “shelf documents.”  In fact, they are rapidly outmoded and turn out to be a big waste of time.  Low return-on-effort.

The fact is that “planning” – maybe it needs to be thought of with a “little p”  – does not need to be this way at all.  What is much more appropriate for most organizations today is a lightweight process that is based on establishing adaptable decision-making guidelines.  This kind of “little-p planning” approach is based on the field of “decision-making under uncertainty.”  It is much more about putting you in the “ready position” – like in tennis – so that you are as well-positioned as possible to return the ball, based on the most likely path it will take.  This approach uses hunches as well as known patterns to create a probabalistic view of what may happen in the future.

Could other things occur – certainly.  Just as in tennis, the server can change things up and do something completely unexpected.  But, if the objective is to be better positioned than not, we know that it is possible to improve upon a “random” position through this kind of planning.

The other key component to this is “skill.”  I’ll stick with the tennis analogy – but, for those who enjoy other sports analogies, the same is true. The more strokes and plays you have in your bag – the more practiced they are – the higher level of proficiency you have – the better prepared you will be to deal with whatever comes at you.  So, the other part of ”little p planning” is to figure out which capabilities and skills you need, and make sure you are as prepared as possible.

2.  This is where the “strategic” part comes in.  How you determine which decision-making rules to consider, and which skills and capabilities you need – these are based on your “strategy.”  Strategy is the answer to the question: “How will we do this?”  It presumes you have selected a goal.  Once you have selected a goal, in fact, there are better and worse ways to go about achieving it.  Those ways constitute your “strategic alternatives.”

Many who use the term “strategy” today may not realize the origin of the word to describe the planning done by generals in military battles.  Rather than convey a vague or gauzy, futuristic kind of planning, in fact, the essence of a strategy is to be able to conceive how a series of future steps – conducted with varying levels of uncertainty – will get you to the goal.  It is specific, it is actionable.  Understanding the different scenarios, when to switch and when to stay the course – all of these are what great strategic planning in today’s dynamic and uncertain world are all about.

Rather than being an impediment to managing in today’s uncertain business climate, well-done strategic planning is a tremendous aid to improving business performance.

About Wendy Vittori

Wendy Vittori is Strategy Consultant. With over 30 years of executive business leadership experience, Wendy works with dynamic small and mid-size organizations to help them improve organization performance and business results. She is a Certified Master Practitioner for MBTI® and conducts MBTI individual and team assessments and workshops.
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