Strategic Planning: Why So Much Frustration?

At the Agile Strategy Lab, we are working on new models of strategy specifically designed for open, loosely connected networks. Not surprisingly, we get a lot of calls from people frustrated with traditional strategic planning and asking if we can help.


  • An engineer at a manufacturing company. His team is worried that they have not put together an adequate roadmap for product development. The Internet of Things is on the horizon, and he fears his company is not prepared. The strategy process within the company, guided by an expensive outside consultant, has not gotten into sufficient detail to bring together the diverse professionals across the company to draw a coherent product roadmap.
  • The chairman of an engineering department at a regional university.Although his university has a strategic plan, the plan doesn’t have much impact on changing the culture within his college. “We need to innovate. Think about it. Universities have a pretty low threshold for innovation. Moving from blackboards to whiteboards. From transparencies to PowerPoints. We are not prepared for how middle schoolers today are learning. Our university strategic plan does not help us address these issues at the college level.”
  • The head of a regional economic development organization in a large metro region. After investing over $600,000 in an outside consultant to deliver a regional strategy, he has a valuable set of reports, but there’s only one problem. “The consultant has left, and we don’t know what to do.”
  • A provincial official in Canada charged with helping rural communities adjust to the challenges of globalization.  Strategic planning process is simply too long, too expensive and too complicated for most rural communities to absorb. “We need something to help these communities, so that they can help themselves.”
  • A top executive at a major defense contractor. “How can you help us innovate? I need to make this place more innovative.”
  • A university administrator who helped guide in 18 month strategic planning process. When we asked her what the problem was, she replied “We’ve completed the strategic plan but the people who plan together can’t stand to meet with each other anymore.”
  • The leader of an IT department in a Fortune 100 company. Despite the fact that he has a strategy document prepared by an outside consultant, he is unsure what to do and how to implement. He’s not even sure the strategy hits the mark. “How do we convert our functional department into a horizontal platform to accelerate innovation across the company? Do you think you could conduct a workshop to help us?”

Why is it that strategic planning has lost its punch?

When you consider how complicated a strategic planning process is, there’s no surprise that people can come away frustrated.

Let’s step back to some basics.

An effective strategy answers two questions: Where are we going? and How will we get there?

In recent years, both of these questions have become far more complex to answer. The first question runs straight into the turbulence created from the acceleration of technology and markets.  It’s just harder to figure out what’s what.

Strategic planning works well in stable environments, but the process breaks down on the outside environment becomes more turbulent and more unpredictable. If the planning process takes 4 to 18 months to complete, and the environment is shifting more quickly than that, you’re in trouble. In many situations, it’s the wrong tool for the times.

The second question of strategy – How we get there? –  has also become more complex and difficult to answer. To execute strategy, we need to rely more heavily on collaboration inside the organization, as old patterns of command and control break down.  Collaboration also extends outside the organization, as we depend increasingly on partners who can help us innovate. In short, the second question carries the complications of collaborations.

Agile strategy, what we call Strategic Doing, is designed so we can do our strategic thinking differently. It ties thinking and doing together in tight time buckets, usually 30 days. We move ideas into action quickly for two important reasons. First, we need to learn by doing. We are dealing with complex systems that we can’t analyze completely. Experimentation is more critical. It’s only when we experiment that we generate data to help us understand what works. Combining thinking with action accelerates our learning.

Focusing on doing is important for another reason.  Collaborations run on trust, and it’s only through doing – lining up our words with our deeds – that we build trust. When we do that rigorously — repeatedly –