Strategic planning versus the strategic plan

Is the strategic plan dead?

Over the past two decades there has been a noticeable trend towards questioning the validity of the traditional strategic planning process. After all, the traditional 3-5 year strategic plan
emerged from military practice following WW2, was adapted by the corporate sector during a period of relative stability and evolved into a non-profit activity in recent years. Is it possible the current and emerging environment demands a new, more adaptive form of strategy planning, based more upon what is occurring now and what is expected to occur tomorrow, than what took place yesterday?

In their article The Strategic Plan is Dead: Long Live Strategy (SSIR Jan 2013), authors O’Donovan & Rimland Flower, suggest it is not strategic planning per se that is under threat; it’s the traditional, ‘static’, strategic plan, created upon assumptions of predictability, that needs to be improved. By implication this suggests the process with which we foster strategic thinking may also be flawed.

In 2008, David La Piana bought together many years of research to develop the Real Time Strategic Planning Process. This rather complex looking framework is based upon the premise that instead of trying to predict emerging trends and setting goals to address them, the process looks first at identifying the organization, by identifying the business model, where the organization fits in the market and the organisations competitive advantage. This framework differs from the traditional non-profit strategic planning framework in that it considers the competitive environment.

Roger Martin, Dean of Rotman School of Management advocates for those engaging in strategic planning to understand where they choose to play and how they chose to win. For some non-profits these questions may be difficult for answer. Yet, Roger Martin suggests it is our lack of understanding of where we play and how we play that hampers our ability to clearly identify our mission and vision.

During a recent strategy planning retreat for a client, we spent almost half the time available discussing the ‘ID’ of that organization, including the values and language that defined them, their business model and how they wanted to be seen by stakeholders. The ideas and value that emerged from those discussion directly impacted upon the board’s decision making and future actions.

The environment for social sector organisations is changing rapidly. It is unlikely we will return to the past environment. Fundamental to these changes are the way the internet shapes social behaviours how we form relationships and networks, how the economic environment is shaping the behaviour of philanthropy and how our ageing society is leading to changes of behaviour and thinking as a new generation of people enter our sector. These are not temporary factors; they represent a paradigm shift that will lead to systemic change in how non-profit organisations operate. The traditional approach to strategic planning centres upon SWOT analysis, goal setting and action plans. It’s a linear perspective, based upon a degree of predictability.

Our workplace is more diverse than ever. Increasingly our organisations resemble a mini-United Nations.

We are in the middle of generational change. The tail-end of the Baby Boomer generation is mixing daily with the vanguard of Gen Y, introducing diversity of ideas, new concepts and new ways of doing things.

This diversity carries over to the community we serve. Multiculturalism, generational change and technological change lead to new behaviours and changing expectations. As social service providers we are expected to meet those expectations with services that are relevant and that create an impact.

Does the traditional, linear process of planning lend itself to this environment? Roger Martin believes that when we move from being analytical to telling stories, we shift from being negative to being positive.

As strategy consultants, we are guided by the Appreciative Inquiry framework (AI) when facilitating planning sessions. A key aspect of AI is its reflective, story-telling process where we ask the question, what needs to be true, for each and every idea. In this way the storytelling shifts from dreaming about the future to prioritizing and setting out a destiny by deciding what resources and capacity the  organisation has or needs to achieve its vision, mission and outcomes.

The good news is that the social sector is already a reflective, story telling sector. We have entire repositories of good, positive stories. Such a process comes easy to those in our sector. Our own experience is that when people are encouraged to share their stories, the planning sessions become learning session and people cease thinking about whether they are right or wrong, or whether their ideas are valid or not. Storytelling transcends linear thinking without diminishing the final outcome.

During a recent strategy retreat I was initially concerned at the Board’s reluctance to focus upon goals and outcomes. As facilitator I was aware of the tension created by my perception that my effectiveness was measured by a new set of goals. I need not have worried. Feedback at the end of Day One was that people had got a lot from the shared stories. By the end of the retreat the Board had set goals. They were not what we had originally envisaged they would be. Their goals emerged from the conversations and sharing of ideas.

At the beginning of this article we asked whether the ‘static’ business plan is a barrier to effective strategic planning? We believe it is. We also believe there should be a plan. To fail to plan; is to plan to fail.

Does the answer rest in having a new perspective on setting strategy? We believe so. Firstly strategic thinking is not the sole domain of the Board, it is a responsibility of all in the organisation, especially those in management roles. O’Donovan & Rimland Flower propose we implement adaptive strategy where the focus is on ‘observing’ and ‘orienting’ ourselves to the emerging environment. Instead of gathering data as ‘evidence’ to support goals, look for feedback from stakeholders to shine a light upon the way forward – and create agile organisations with devolved authority that can act faster and sooner. This doesn’t imply any lack of planning. It does suggest we avoid become a slave to ‘the plan’.

Source: John Coxon & Associates

About John Coxon
Since 2002 John Coxon has been working with boards and management teams in healthcare, aged care and the not-for-profit sector in Australia and New Zealand. John has well developed understanding of the non-profit environment and issues and proven experience helping guide strategic thinking and planning.