Strategic Planning: How Not to Waste Your Time 

Over a good portion of  my career, I have been responsible for strategic planning and for the most part it has been a waste of time and effort.  My experience is that organizations ask good people to spend a considerable effort in gazing into the future and describe all the great new things the organization will be doing.  The plan is released to great fanfare and then people get on with their lives managing operational activities or dealing with the crisis du jour.  Before the organization knows it, it is time to expend more effort to update a hopelessly out of date plan.  If anyone takes the time to compare the actual implementation with the good intentions of the previous plan, achievements are those which had few alternatives or were achieved with via dumb luck.

Okay, I am being a bit dramatic for effect and to get you ready to think about how strategic planning can be worth it’s time and effort through three principles.

Three Starting Point Principles

  1. The Process is the Plan.
  2. Execute… Something.
  3. Less is more and Four Pages is Lots.

The Process is the Plan.

Given that very few plans are ever read after their completion, does this not mean that the value is in the drafting of the plan rather than the final document? When organizations stop, think, and decide what to do next – they are better prepared for tomorrow’s crisis du jours.  Given that the value is in the process, does it not make it sense to institutionalize strategic planning within the organization’s management and governance functions rather than an annual exercise?  When this happens, the organization’s command, control and communication muscles are toned and ready to react quickly to opportunities and challenges.  Unfortunately the dark side of focusing on the process is analysis-paralysis or perpetual-planning that never results in a result.  In other words, planning is fun but only execution counts.

Execute… Something.

Strategic Plans are highly perishable.  Before too long they go from the plan of the moment, to something somewhat relevant to eventually becoming shelf-ware and at worst a walking zombie-plan (think of the communist regime’s five year plan in year 4).  Rapid implementation is critical and metrics even more so against the plan.  Ideally if the process is finely honed, then it stays current through multiple mini-revisions and then a major revision to thwart the Zombie plan-apocalypse.

This is done by executing against the plan, anything!  As well, measure the results of this execution: what was done, by whom and when.  This will validate the time and effort spent developing the plan, will tone and flex those organizational muscles and keep the plan in the organization’s consciousness.

Less is more and Four Pages is Lots.

There is an inverse relationship between the length of a plan and its value.  Less is more and I believe the best length is four (or fewer) pages.  What is on these four pages will be a function of the audience and their knowledge of the organization.  In general though, page one describes the organization’s environment, planning assumptions and the key mandates of the organization.  Page two is graphic that succinctly describes the organization of the future as a result of the plan.  Pages three to four describes the organization actions, each with a clear title and a clearer 1-2 sentence description of the action.  The four page restriction forces the organization to think strategically and not fall into either tactical or operational verbiage within the document.  It also prints nicely on two pages and can be scanned by even the most harried executive.

If there are more projects and initiatives, then they should be rolled up thematically.  At least one quarter of these actions should focus on what the organization intends to keep on doing/improve rather than the shiny new stuff.
For more complex organizations, there is an overarching four page plan with each logical subordinate sub-organization having its own four page document.  The organization should define at what level and what organizational units will need to produce their own four page strategic plans.

The devil is always in the details but angels are found in a summarizing graphic which helps narrate the overarching themes.  To flesh out the little devilish details, the process (principle #1 above) allows for subordinate plans to map to a larger organizational plan.  Ideally this is done in real time and continuously rather than on an annual/ad hoc basis.  The four page limit is to help an organization focus its strategic planning efforts but this rule can be bent based on its specific needs or circumstances.

Waste Not – Want Not (for a Strategic Plan)

Is there anything new or earth shattering in the above three principles?  Nope, not a darn thing.  Do organizations use the above principles very well – based on my experience?  Nope, not really.  This is not for lack for trying but it is for a lack of focus (or distractions).  That is why many strategic plans are written by consultants who have the time and capacity to interview executives and formulate nice reports.  Unfortunately in my experience, nice looking strategic planning reports are generally a waste of time and effort by the organization.

And now for the hard part, I plan to use these three principles in my strategic planning activities both in my work and professional life.  As I am successful (or crash in burning flames), I will use this blog to track the successes and tweaks to how to not waste your time in strategic planning.

Other Thoughts on Strategic Planning