“Strategic planning”: All too often, a time-sucking bridge to nowhere


By Edvard Munch (1893)

My friends in management consulting may toss me out of the visitor’s lounge for saying this, but two words uttered together send a chill up my spine: Strategic planning.

Here’s a good definition of strategic planning from Free Management Library:

Simply put, strategic planning determines where an organization is going over the next year or more, how it’s going to get there and how it’ll know if it got there or not. The focus of a strategic plan is usually on the entire organization, while the focus of a business plan is usually on a particular product, service or program.

On the surface, strategic planning makes eminent sense. After all, planning is good. Thinking strategically is good. Bumbling along is not good.

But in my admittedly anecdotal exposure to strategic planning projects (a/k/a long-range plans, self-study reports, etc. in the non-profit sector), what I often see are combinations of the following (in no particular order):

1. Gobs and gobs of valuable work time are devoted to the strategic planning process. Meetings, more meetings. E-mails upon e-mails. And don’t forget the in-house surveys and questionnaires. (The owners of SurveyMonkey.com should send a gift basket to every manager who speaks favorably about strategic planning.)

2. There’s a sort of top-down control effort that starts with ensuring that the strategic planning group is chaired by a loyal lieutenant and has a majority membership of “safe” participants. The makeup of the strategic planning committee often makes the end result a foregone conclusion.

3. The group produces a detailed plan that is too lengthy to be easily digested, fixed in goals and recommendations, and/or unworkable in practice. The larger the strategic planning group, the more likely the latter, as the whole turns out to be less than the sum of the parts, or maybe an uncoordinated mess whereby the pieces assembled are well beyond the organization’s capacities to implement.

4. The plan is approved or adopted in a way that validates it, organizationally speaking, but a significant minority may be dissenting in silence or feel left out.

5. Group deliberations, driving toward consensus, often lead to the blandest sets of recommendations or agendas. Groupthink + dull ideas = why bother?

6. Those in power will cite the plan when it is helpful to do so, and ignore it when it is inconvenient.

7. Controlling conservatives usually don’t like to bother with drawn-out, inclusive strategic planning processes. They prefer to rule from atop, without apology. Controlling liberals like to involve a lot of people, while finding a way to manipulate the strategic planning process to get the results they want.

8. If the strategic planning initiative begins with the drafting or revision of a mission statement, add one month and several gigabytes of additional e-mails to a group “wordsmithing” effort that typically generates a banal paragraph, forgotten upon approval of the strategic plan.

9. A drawn-out strategic planning process is a wonderful way to put off, deliberately, any meaningful organizational change or individual initiative. “Wait and see what the strategic plan recommends” is the equivalent of sending ideas off to die.

10. Ambitious strategic planning efforts in small organizations can grind things to a halt. There’s no one free to do actual work.

Organizations should engage in smart, inclusive planning and evaluation. But there’s something about mega-processes like strategic planning that often do neither.


This is the first of three short posts this week on organizational planning, behavior, and leadership.

7 responses

  1. WOW — did you work for the military or for that mattter anywhere in the federal government? You nailed it. We had a planning cycle of every three years. New Admiral/General in — old plan out. Of course it would take two years of the new guys tenure to put a “new” plan in place leaving only one year to run with it until the next “new broom” swept it away and started over. I watched this nonsense for 30 years — sat on several of the “committees” over the years until the latest plans started looking like the earliest plans . I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I watched a lot of taxpayer money wasted.

  2. David – You are spot on in regard to traditional tops-down strategic planning. There are way more innovative approaches that involve people at all levels who have different and “right” perspectives on where the company is and where it needs to focus and/or shift. Strategic thinking, done this way, is very useful. But it is not strategic planning in the traditional sense. That’s why I call it strategic thinking. Once the direction is determined, everyone is responsible for planning the implementation and working to achieve it. Traditional strategic plans also typically lack for creative, innovative and out of the box thinking. The usual tops down process are more like project plans and end up in a drawer–where they belong.

  3. As one of those consultants who earns a living, in part, facilitating strategic planning efforts, I promise I will not throw you out of the visitor’s lounge! What you’ve described here is everything that is wrong with the way strategic planning is typically done, but it can work and work very well if you have a skilled facilitator involved. I see it as my job to challenge underlying assumptions that people hold about the way they do their work and to push them to think differently about their future. Because I use systems thinking and organizational learning as my premise for how I approach strategic planning, I am typically able to avoid the pitfalls you describe here. These days, the need is less for strategic planning and more for strategic thinking. One way to tackle this is through scenario planning, which has organizations lay out a number of plausible future scenarios. That work will ultimately enable the organization to choose a path that is most likely to lead to the desired outcomes.

    Thanks for this post! I hope you hit a chord with those who find themselves stuck in this vicious cycle.

    • Now that is smart Marty and you sound good at it.

      Why do organisations spent so much time on things that do not give results?

      Strategic thinking would increase innovation that the business or group already has. It is up to the minute working on strategies that matter today. Where the plan can be affected by outside issues that were not apparent as it was developed. In my experience these innovative people are held back as they are considered threats to those who do not have strategic thinking skills.

      I left the industry studied Learning and Development at university to work from the outside. This way the CEOs could not prevent innovative thinking. As a consultant at times we spoke to the staff who had the answers and fed this back to the Directors who thank us very much and sign of the payment.

  4. I couldn’t help but chuckle and shake my head in agreement as this is EXACTLY the type of mentality I had to deal with at my previous company.

  5. Thanks, all, for your great comments, describing your own experiences and suggesting better ways of approaching the planning & evaluation process. Much appreciated.

  6. This is spot on David. When I spoke against the business plan I was not invited to any more meetings. ( A highly credentialed consultant had exposed the flaws in the plan.)

    Yet it went ahead in 1999. The main proponent of the plan is now the current mayor.

    Just my observations of Local Government.

    Directors were brought in to replace managers. They took two years of strategic planning which limited decision making. Each issue was met with we will look at this later. In fact most issues went away as lower level staff resolved them to be replaced by another pressing issue. The director did not have to make any decision other than to put these issues onto next months agenda.

    If you asked “What is a strategic plan?” You don’t speak their language and show why you are not worthy to be one of them.

    The third year is spent trying to un muddle an un workable thick plan that is word smithed brilliantly.

    A smart director uses this third year to market themselves on the revolutionary plan for change they developed to yet another gullible company. These directors command salaries and conditions that are maybe three times the wages of those who actually make things work.

    I was not politically attuned to this. When a directors meeting came up with an organisational $30 saving per week I called them out on this. Yes that thirty dollars was taken by adjusting three senior staffs take home pay downwards. I had lost another ten dollars per week after working so hard to turn around a problem department. I resigned and they lost me over the ten dollars. A great outcome for the organisational saving. I was disgusted by the way my dedication had been rewarded.

    Complaints from the public were brushed away as “the complainant is told we are addressing this and our staff are on to it.”

    This was my experience of working in local government. “Innovation must be crushed as we strive for mediocrity” should be the truthful goal of the plan.

    Instead we see “we are striving for a vibrant community!” What is a vibrant community anyway? Another weasel word that is hard to identify, impossible to measure meaningfully but everyone wants one.

    A well worded happiness survey with questions that give answers they want spawns a whole new industry.

    I can not work anymore with this and have found a place that respects staff.

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