90 or 99 – That is the Strategic Question

Nicolas Taleb would have us believe that strategic planning is ‘superstitious babble’ (see Anti-fragile strategic planning).  In contrast, Kaplan and Norton make strategic planning a cornerstone of the Balanced Scorecard.  The reality is probably in the middle.

This blog however considers the question, how much time should an organization spend on planning?  Successful or not, when do you cut your losses for a year or when do you think that you are not doing enough?

How Much Is Enough?

On the one hand, strategic planning can become its own self-sustaining cottage industry.  Endless meetings are held and navels are closely examined with little to show for it.  On the other hand, the organization is so tied up in operations and ‘crisis du jour‘ that they wake up and discover the world (and even their organization) has completely changed around them.

What rule of thumb or heuristic can be used to know that you are doing enough without decorating cottages?  My proposed answer is somewhere between the 1.0% and 0.1%. Although a full order of magnitude separates these values, a range is important due to the volatility of an environment an organization finds itself in.  Governments are likely on the low-end (closer to 0.1%) and tech start-ups on the higher end (1.0%).

For more on the basis for these heuristics, take a read of ‘A Ruling on 80, 90 and 99‘ for my thoughts and a review of such things as Vilfredo Pareto’s legacy and internet lurkers. A recap from this blog is as follows:

  • Pareto: 20% of an organization’s actions account for 80% of its results.
  • 90 Rule: 1% of the operational decisions are enacted by 9% of the organization affecting the remaining 90%.
  • 99 Rule: 0.1% of the strategic decisions are enacted by 0.9% of the organization which impacts the remaining 99%.

Thus the 99 Rule provides a minimum amount of time for an organization to consider strategic questions while the 90 rule provides a maximum amount of time.

Who Does What and What to Do with Your Time?

Consider a fictional organization of 1,000 people.  This is a medium sized business, typical government Ministry or employees of a large town or a small city.  Assuming there is about 1,700 productive hours on average per year per employee (e.g. after vacation, training, sick time, etc. see below for my guesstimation on this) this means the organization in total has 1,700,000 hours to allocate.  How much of this precious resource should be spent doing strategic planning?

I am recommending no less than 1,700 hours and no more than 17,000 hours in total.  In total means involving all people in all aspects of the process.  Thus if there is a one hour planning meeting with 20 people in the room, that is 20 hours.  To prepare for this meeting, 3 people may have spent 2 full days each – another 3 x 2 x 8-hours or another 48 hours against the above budget.

Measuring what Matters

The point of completing these measurements is to answer four fundamental questions:

  1. Is the organization doing enough strategic planning relative to the environment?
  2. Is the organization doing too much planning?
  3. Are we getting value for the investment of resources?
  4. How do we get better at the activities to reduce this total?

Is the organization doing enough strategic planning relative to the environment?

What happens if you discover you are not doing enough?  For example your 1,000 person organization is only spending 100 hours per year doing planning.  You may be very good and efficient and if so bravo to you and your planning folks!  On the other hand, you may be missing opportunities, blind sided by challenges and mired in the current day’s crisis – in which case maybe a bit more effort is needed.

Is the organization doing too much planning?

The 1,000 person organization may also be in a Ground Hog Day’esque hell of constantly planning with not much to show for it.  Perhaps you have a full time planning unit of five people who host dozens of senior management sessions and the best they can is produce an anemic planning document that is quickly forgotten.  In this case, measuring the effort of consuming 10 to 20 thousand hours of efforts for nought can lead to better approaches to the effort.

Are we getting value for the investment of resources?

The above two examples demonstrate how a bit of measurement may help you decide that 100 hours is more than sufficient or 20,000 hours was money well spent.  The output of the planning process is… well a plan.  More importantly it is a culture of monitoring, planning and adapting to changing organizational and environmental circumstances.  Thus setting an input target of planning to measure the quality of the output and the impact of the outcomes can answer the question if the planning effort were resources well spent.

How do we get better at the activities to reduce this total?

The advantage of measuring, evaluating and reflecting on the planning efforts is to get better at.  Setting a target (be 1.0% or 0.1%) is the first step of this activity and measuring against this target is the next.

Good luck with your planning efforts and let me know how much time your organization spends on its planning initiatives.

* How much Time Do You Have?

How much time does an organization have per annum to do things?  The answer is … it depends.  Here are two typical organizations.  The first is a medium size enterprise that works an 8-hour day, offers 3-weeks vacation per year, in addition to sick days and training (e.g. for safety, regulatory compliance, etc.).  On the other hand is a Ministry that offers a 7.25-hour day, 5-weeks of vacation plus sick and training days.

Organization Medium Size Company Government Ministry
Hours/day (1) 8 hours 7.25 hours
Work days per year (2) 254  250
Work Hours per year 2,032 1,812.5
Avg Vacation days x work hours (3) 120
(3 weeks)
(5 weeks)
Avg Sick Days/year x work hours (4) 60
(7.5 days)
(7.5 days)
Avg Hours of Learning/year (5) 42 29
Total productive hours/employee 1,810 1,548.25
  1. Few professionals work an 8-hour day let alone a 7.25-hour one.  Nevertheless, everyone has non-productive time such as bathroom breaks, filling up on coffee, walking between buildings.  So I am leaving the actual average productive hours at 8 and 7.25 respectively.
  2. For a cool site in adding this calculation, see: www.workingdays.ca.  Note this includes 3 days of Christmas Closure.
  3. 10 days is the minimum number of vacation days required to be given to an employee.  The average is a surprisingly difficult number to find (at least to a casual searcher).  15 days is based on an Expedia 2015 survey.
  4. Reference Statistics Canada: Days lost per worker by reason, by provinces.
  5. Sources vary.  I have chosen the high value for the for-profit organization as they often have stringent regulatory requirements for health and safety training.  For government I have chosen a medium value.  Sources:

Other Thoughts on Strategic Planning