“The 10% success rate of strategy is wildly inflated.”  Tom Peters

One of the quickest ways for organizations – both for profit and nonprofit – to lose credibility and feel shame, is to admit they don’t have a strategic plan. Yet there are organizations that can’t move forward on the strategic plan they have.

The plan often fails in its ability to help produce new insights.

  • Sometimes the plan is never put to use.
  • There are those times when the plan seems to be used as a validation for what the leaders are already doing.
  • Often – especially in nonprofits – the strategic planning process is no more than a tool to engage staff and board members by exposing them to the mission of the organization.

The uncertainty of planning is not new.

  • “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”
  • “Man makes his plans, but the Lord determines the outcome.”
  • “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it is about the future.”

It is commonplace to invest a great deal of energy into a desired future only to have it not pan out.  And planning is not getting any easier as the complexity and volatility of our environment increases.

William Starbuck, a scholar and management expert, talks about the downside of planning.  He says, “often times strategic planning is little more than superstitious babble.” The idea that planning can predict the future is at best a myth.  Risk can be reduced, but far from eliminated.

Strategic planning helps us focus.  But don’t lose sight that the downside of focus is the loss of peripheral vision.  We need to be aware that it can increase our blind spots.  Companies can and do change – some drastically!  This is what Matthew Stewart refers to as “rational opportunistic business drift.” Consider the following:

  • Coca Cola began as a pharmaceutical product.  It was supposedly a cure for morphine addiction, headaches, impotence and many other diseases.
  • Tiffany Jewelry started out as a stationary store.
  • Raytheon, who made the first missile guidance system, started out as an appliance company making refrigerators.
  • DuPont, famous for Teflon non-sticking cooking pans, started out as an explosive’s company with one black powder product that had superior power.
  • Avon,  the cosmetics company, started out as a door-to-door book sales company.  The 28 year old founder observed that the rose oil he was giving away was the very reason women were buying the books.  An intricate book-selling strategy might have made this harder to see.

No strategic plan would have predicted these drastic changes.  Even so, strategic thinking should be at the core of strategic planning.  Here are 5 things that it includes:

  1. Strategic thinking should be rational and intuitive. If the plan is seen simply as systematic and not intuitive, opportunities will probably be overlooked.  These should compliment one another.  The planning process should also be a possibilities process.  If flexibility and looseness are not injected into the planning process, creativity will be restrained.
  2. Strategic thinking needs time margin. Free space is necessary for strategic thinking – creating blocks of time as buffers.  Busyness gets in the way of business.  Einstein was known to create multiple buffer blocks. Imagination needs room to both see and soar.  Make time for imagination, insight and innovation.  Too many leaders today short-circuit imagination, insight and innovation, and rush to implementation – an approach to strategic planning that is a guaranteed recipe for shallow thinking.
  3. Strategic thinking is proactive. Without uninterrupted focus, we will always be reacting to our environment.  We need to be proactive.  Data comes at us as a constant barrage.  Sorting out important data from insignificant debris saves time and money.  This allows us to step away from tactical execution to ensure we are heading in the right direction.
  4. Strategic thinking broadens knowledge. The dark side of focus is the loss of peripheral vision. Strategic thinking helps broaden our context.  This helps clarify where our organization is and where it should be going.  Good judgment and creativity are enhanced.  An organization’s plan should never lead to missed opportunities.
  5. Strategic thinking questions assumptions. Questioning assumptions is often – sometimes subtly – colored as a non team attitude.  In reality, questioning assumptions is a form of risk management. Planning can lead to faking objectivity if we assume our assumptions are accurate.  We should allow for surprises, admit error, and improve as we correct.  Questioning assumptions should be a core competency.

Do strategic planning.  Just be aware of its ideological nature and it’s inherent limitations.  It cannot predict the future.  Making strategic thinking a core competency helps make the planning process useful.