Strategic Doing vs. Strategic Planning

Notepad with "Strategy" title and marker

Strategic Doing vs. Strategic Planning: at nearly every presentation we do at the Lab, we get some version of this question. What’s the difference? Why do Strategic Doing?

If you’ve read the Strategic Doing book, you may have figured out that even the authors don’t see this issue the same way. We’ve each had our own experiences with strategic planning before we encountered Strategic Doing. Those were sometimes great, often disappointing, occasionally awful. You probably can tell a similar story.  If you’ve been to Strategic Doing practitioner training, you’ve heard us refer to the failure rate of strategic planning initiatives. Depending on the article, somewhere between half and 90% of them fail. One variable is how failure is defined. We like Cândido & Santos’ definition: “either a new strategy was formulated but not implemented, or it was implemented but with poor results.”

Why does strategic planning fail?

Strategic planning can fail for many reasons, but a few themes are common:

  • First, the environment may have changed. If your strategic plan was completed in February of 2019, you probably found yourself with a completely irrelevant document given the monumental changes wrought by the coronavirus. Even without a pandemic, many strategic plans are based on a set of assumptions drawn largely from past history.
  • Second, the group developing the plan didn’t have a deep enough understanding of the organization’s strengths to chart an appropriate course. This is particularly likely in large organizations where the planning group doesn’t include anyone except top executives. Even small organizations sometimes don’t think about who needs to be included. And by inclusion, we don’t mean a focus group session or meeting presentation that “checks a box.”
  • The third factor is also related to inclusion. Even if the goals in the plan are the right ones, if people don’t feel included in an ongoing conversation, they aren’t likely to feel particularly motivated to implement those goals. A strategic planning process that is pronounced “done” when the document is distributed is almost doomed to failure.
  • Finally, some strategic plans are simply incomplete. We like to say that a strategy (and a strategic plan) needs to specify where the group is going, and how they’re going to get there (in broad terms). Some plans are full of vision and values statements (where they’re going) – but there has been no real conversation about implementation.

Should an organization do strategic planning?

All of this doesn’t mean that organizations should abandon strategic planning. It does mean that it should be approached differently. Stop thinking of it as a once-a-decade exercise that produces a beautiful document. Instead, it’s an opportunity for strategic thinking about where the organization is headed and why. Acknowledge that there is no perfect plan, no matter how long a team spends on it.

The best way to do strategic planning

If your organization is looking to develop a strategic plan (or revise an existing one), here are a few recommendations:

  • Broaden the group working on the plan. Include a diverse group that might include employees (at multiple levels, and both newcomers and veterans), customers or clients and partners.
  • Remember the first rule of Strategic Doing: a safe space for deep and focused conversation. No one should be on the team if they can’t behave in ways that build trust and mutual respect. Everyone has something to contribute and a voice in decision-making – no executive sessions or back room deals!
  • Think about implementation from the beginning. Many groups use Strategic Doing in conjunction with strategic planning. The strategic plan identifies the major areas that need attention, and then teams use Strategic Doing to create action plans – especially for those major areas that are adaptive challenges rather than technical ones. This also builds a sense of real inclusion.
  • Keep the process (relatively) brief. There is no reason for an 18-month strategic planning process unless you are planning D-Day (which is, in fact, a success that inspired the strategic planning trend). Identify the big goals, empower people to implement them, and build in frequent review sessions so the organization can respond to a changing environment or new information. In other words, be agile.

Does the Agile Strategy Lab do strategic planning consulting?

There are many consultants that advertise their expertise in strategic planning. Each has their own approach (which may or may not include Strategic Doing). At the Agile Strategy Lab, we can help organizations structure the process. Our primary goal is to equip the organization to do their own strategic thinking and, yes, doing. If you’d like to schedule a time to talk about your organization’s needs, get in touch with us.

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