Enough Already with Strategic Planning!

Let’s develop a strategic plan!  It seems like everybody is doing it these days, so why not?  Planning is good, right?

Of course it is.  Road maps are good if you are taking a trip from one place to another, so strategic plans must be good when attempting to take an organization from one state of existence to the next.

But here’s the rub.  Strategic plans often accomplish little or nothing at all, and some of the best business minds in America have understood this for some time now.  

The mistake made by well-intentioned leaders is to believe that strategic plans somehow replace the need for good old-fashioned leadership, effective communication, and paying attention to progress.  Plans do not manage companies, leaders do.

In his 1994 article published by Harvard Business Review, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, Henry Mintzberg criticizes strategic planning as a crutch used by leaders who lack the ability to envision the future.  “When strategic planning arrived on the scene in the mid-1960s,” Mintzberg argues, “corporate leaders embraced it as ‘the one best way’ to devise and implement strategies that would enhance the competitiveness of business units.”

As Mintzberg explains, “the most successful strategies are visions, not plans.”

This critique of what always seemed like a sensible approach to business is playing out in real life.  Some renowned business leaders, including those who’ve made a cottage industry of helping companies establish their strategic plans, will admit that most wind up in the trash can.  Worse, they become fodder for cynical employees who view failed plans as evidence of their employers’ incompetence and lack of focus.

What makes organizations successful over the long term is strategic thinking not strategic planning.  To think strategically, one must be able to predict trends, identify opportunities and threats, assess strengths and weaknesses, and evaluate options for how the organization can navigate itself into the future with minimal risk.  Furthermore, strong organizations promote the kind of communication and brainstorming that allow pertinent facts to emerge for consideration.  Leaders who think strategically and stay engaged in the mechanics and culture of the organization don’t need strategic plans.

“The goal of those who promote planning is to reduce [subordinate] managers’ power over strategy making,” Mintzberg suspects.  When this happens, employees face barriers to innovation and feel limited in their capacity to influence the future of their organization – because, after all, there is a strategic plan.  Consequently, strategic planning becomes a convenient tool for simply keeping things under control.

It is true that strategic planning can be successful and has been in the past. But when a strategic plan works well, it usually means that it was created by strategic thinkers who ensured that the plan would be representative of their existing vision and would be made an integral part of their business approach.  As a result, the strategic plan remains relevant simply because it was born of the same energy and vision that was leading the organization in the first place.

Organizational leaders who do not think strategically and have limited vision, however, are not necessarily bad at what they do.  Sometimes bad visionaries are great decision makers.  What this means is that their time will be much better spent on facilitating communication than planning.  Leaders without strong visioning skills will generally fail at strategic planning so they should focus on keeping employees talking, thinking, and communicating with each other so that the organization can quickly identify changes to its strategic environment and react accordingly.  

An outstanding book for those interested in learning about what really makes organizations successful should check out Lessons from the Top: The Search for America’s Best Business Leaders by Thomas Neff and James Citrin.  As they explain, “different kinds of leaders and leadership styles are appropriate for different circumstances.”  This should be encouraging to the diversity of managers leading America’s crime laboratories.  Regardless of their natural leadership tendencies, some degree of success is always possible.  As Neff and Citrin explain, “When leaders succeed in doing the right things – both personally and within their organizations – the traditional measures of success inevitably follow.”  

Strategic planning by strategic thinkers is effective.  Strategic planning by everyone else is a fad.

Especially if you are new to organizational management, here are some things to think about to ensure that your organization can function strategically with or without a plan:

  • Aggressively facilitate constructive communication of all sorts and pay attention to what emerges – even if it is controversial.
  • Continually ask questions about what employees think and observe.
  • Maintain a current understanding of your strategic environment.
  • Know when it is time to make a decision then make it.  Don’t waffle – the good decision made immediately is often much better than the perfect decision made late.
  • Speak firmly and authoritatively about what you know is important to your organization.  If you don’t have confidence in something – no matter how small – then you can’t lead.

Strategic thinking and understanding the strategic environment are what drive successful organizations.  For too long, strategic planning was portrayed as a mandatory part of good business.

It isn’t.  And quite frankly, it never was.

By John Collins MA, SHRM-SCP
Published on July 12, 2017

John Collins is a High-Stakes Leadership Consultant and Executive Coach at Critical Victories (www.criticalvictories.com).