Strategic Planning, Then and Now

“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” — Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, nineteenth century Prussian Field Marshal.

“Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower, American five-star Army general and 34th President of the United States.

Strategic Planning by Laura Stack #productivityRecently, the concept of strategic planning has become a popular business focus, especially among companies scrambling to keep up with our brave new world’s frantic pace. We’ve always practiced strategic planning at some level, of course, but what we meant by the term a few years ago barely resembles today’s reality. This should come as no surprise in an era when last week’s smartphone can’t even run this week’s apps.

Once upon a time, strategic planning was a leisurely process, hidebound and bureaucratic. Some managers still treat it as such; worse, they see strategic planning as something mysteriously created by senior executives and/or outside consultants, perceiving execution as little more than the downstream part of the process. The top brass decides what to do, and staff members take the decision and run with it.

In reality, what the workers do often isn’t what the leaders dictate; they adapt on the fly to fit the current reality. If you haven’t already realized and accepted this, then you’d better open your eyes immediately. Yes, managers and other leaders still play a crucial role in strategic prioritization: but today’s business world is much too unpredictable to straitjacket your front-liners with last year’s (or last week’s) strategies.

Keep these things in mind as you proceed with your strategic planning:

1. Think flexibly. I could fill a book with things we thought would never happen, but did anyway—and almost always suddenly. The Berlin Wall went down in a matter of days. The Soviet Union collapsed soon after. CDs and DVDs revolutionized data storage and entertainment. Guns ‘n Roses even released their album Chinese Democracy. Everything’s in a state of flux, so old-fashioned 3-to-5 year strategic plans don’t work for business anymore. At best, you can only outline an operational plan a year or so ahead, and even then you’d better review your strategic priorities often to correct your daily course. Office Depot, Inc., for example, caught on quickly; in the first quarter of 2009, the company began reviewing its annual budget monthly, a practice that has resulted in several profitable mid-course changes. Many companies have followed suit, but the practice isn’t yet universal.

2. Exercise agility. In today’s business environment, you can generate better results only if you engage your workers and create an agile corporate culture full of strategic thinkers. The military realized this long ago: the officer’s job isn’t to do the physical work, but to tell the NCOs to get it done. The sergeants pass the work down the line, and whomever the buck stops with has the responsibility of figuring out how to best accomplish the task. The idea is to just get it done and not worry so much about planning how to do it. Be very clear on the difference between strategies and tactics, or your leaders will soon be “eating the bug dirt” from being deep in the weeds.

3. Accept your new leadership role. Unlike military officers, you can’t just issue orders and expect to have them blindly followed (you don’t want that anyway). Instead, encourage people to do what they already know they need to do. Modern leadership is more of a partnership than ever before. Give your team members all the facts they need and build lots of listening into the feedback and milestone system, so they can change course and goals quickly—but never in the blind. Maintain the conversation as an open loop with lots of coaching opportunities.

4. Realize that execution is the strategy. Today’s leaders can’t really create strategic goals anymore; only those who execute can, since a) everything changes so rapidly now, and b) only team members can truly own those goals to make it happen. That said, as leader you’re still responsible for creating the priorities that inform the goals in the first place. Furthermore, you can’t accept that a goal has been set until your team has adopted it. For example: let’s say your priority is to climb a certain mountain range by 2016. Your job is to ask your climbing team, “What goals can you adopt to get us there?” and then keep the conversation going and the team pushing until the goal becomes a reality.

Shifting Paradigms

No one has time for long-term strategic planning anymore; short-term strategic prioritization is more in order. Execution itself is the only strategy that propels successful organizations forward, as leaders and followers gradual merge into the same thing. However, we still need leaders to articulate the mission and vision to the team and ask the team to create the goals. Your role is less to tell people what to do than to encourage them to do what they know they must do to achieve their goals.

Actually, workers have been innovating for many years…but we haven’t always asked them their opinion and squelched their creativity. Only now have we seriously begun to realize that once leaders set the priorities, they must get out of the way while the team decides how to get there and mobilizes quickly. These days, you must rely on your people to think strategically and create flexible goals in real-time.