Strategic plan with lightbulb

Conventional Strategic Planning Doesn’t Deliver- Strategic Planning Part 1

Happy New Year!

No doubt, you are rushing to secure the location for your strategic planning off-site!

It occurred to me recently that as much as I write and think about strategy, I have never actually described how to do strategic planning!

WTH? I wrote a whole book on the stuff—and not one article?

So, my first order of action in 2024 is to correct that.

This is part one of a two-article series on leading a strategic planning event. And even if you are never called upon to do so, this is for you.

Why? Because you will attend a ton of these over your career. It’s important to understand the why behind each piece of the agenda—and to be able to identify what’s missing in so many of them.

Hasn’t This been Done?

There is no shortage of stuff on the web about strategic planning. Here are some of the results from a search for “How do I conduct a strategic planning off-site?”
They all say have lots to say about preparation and brainstorming—and offer an agenda like this:

  1. Vision.
  2. Mission.
  3. SWOT analysis
  4. Goals
  5. Projects

Following that agenda will produce some decent project planning and personal bonding. All good.

But it will fall far short of producing an extraordinary strategy.

Why Do Strategic Planning?

Let’s take a step back. Why do it at all?

When I lead a strategic planning event, it is because my client has a bold, ambitious, and very hard goal— a BHAG as Jim Collins calls them.

It’s improbable and cannot be achieved by simply adding efficiency or better tools.

It demands a brilliant, future-based, testable, shareable strategy.

So, as I look at the sample agenda above, I ask a specific question. 

Will doing this generate a breakthrough strategy that will MASSIVELY increase the likelihood of achieving our BHAG?

The answer is no. It lacks the very thing that makes a strategy a strategy.

The Essential Seed of a Strategy

The thing that makes a strategic plan strategic is that it answers this question:

What is our theory of how we will get from this present state to that unprecedented and seemingly impossible future state?
There are a lot of ways to frame that question, and a lot of other questions that fit within it.

  • What do we believe to be true?
  • How will we —uniquely—leverage the opportunity we see? 
  • What path will we take and why not some other path?
  • How will we define and carve out a novel space that will change our customers’ perspectives?

Answering those questions is the essence of strategy.

When you do so, you generate a principle that will drive every other decision, day in and day out.

If you don’t ask those questions, there is only ONE possible permissible reason why: The answers have already been decided.  Maybe it was the Board of directors or the founders.

But even if it has already been decided – it MUST be present within the strategic planning agenda for this to be a STRATEGIC plan.

Without that, your team can’t understand the why behind their work.

They need to know and believe what you —as an organization—say is your fundamental unfair advantage in the marketplace.

That characterization should underscore every project and action. If it doesn’t—whether because no one knows it, or it hasn’t been created—then you do not have a strategy.

World Domination

Formal strategy, as we think of it today, was birthed in warfare.  And while the violence is absent, (billionaire cage fights notwithstanding), the intent is not.

A strategy is a campaign to conquer territory. (Click to tweet this thought)

Even choosing the territory is part of strategic planning.

Do we take that hill or sneak through the valley and invade the city before dawn? Are we targeting small businesses or large enterprises with our SaaS product? Attack by air, or breach the coastline? Do we grow regionally, by acquisition or by industry?

The Strategic Planning Journey

To emerge from a strategic planning retreat with the kind of breakthrough strategy I’m talking about, you need to shepherd your team through an intellectual journey.

Each stop along the way will create challenge, consternation, annoyance, debate, curiosity, excitement, and conflict.

Every conversation will build until you align on the theory.

That theory—the strategy—will become the guiding principle for decision-making.

And in every ensuing day, as individuals choose between tasks and projects, the strategy will guide their choices.

But it starts with the journey of these key conversations:

I. Where are we now?

We answer this in the same way we answer the question at the start of a diet. What is the truth today? Collect and display all the numbers and descriptions.

II. Where do we hope to be ultimately?

This is the future vision. The fully realized description of that world, and its measurable indicators.

Bridging the Gap

Between the future vision and the current reality is a vast lacuna—a delta. It’s important to make that delta vivid and visceral.

III. What do we believe to be true about the conditions and probabilities between here and there?

Your SWOT, PESTL and other analyses go here. This also includes information about the organization’s capacities, culture, cash runway and anything else that may be germane to its ability.

IV. What would have to be true for us to have achieved our goal.  

Thinking from the future, consider the possible and plausible scenarios and paths that brought you to that unlikely destination.

You are crafting narratives of the ways that future has come into being.

V. Given all of that, we will become_________________, as evidenced by X, Y and Z.

This is where the strategy goes.

It is the theory about the way in which your organization uniquely can solve the problem of your customer and thereby bridge the future and the present.

The job of executing the strategy, is the project of testing that theory–with every project, task, initiative and decision. 

But without a strategic theory, every decision is made idiosyncratically. There is no experiment, and no cohesive hypothesis. There is just activity. 

In next week’s article, I will lay out the specifics of creating your strategic hypothesis and connecting it to everyone’s job.

In the meantime, I’d love to know your ways of addressing strategic planning in your own organization.

  • Do you do it in a retreat?
  • Or is it an organization-wide project?
  • How do you use your strategic plan in day-to-day operations?
  • What makes you love or loathe your own retreats?

Please feel free to email me, or use the contact page here.

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