If Strategic Planning is “Dead,” What is the Alternative?

Someone lately had asked:

“Was strategic planning still in? Or Out?”

It was concluded that strategic planning was the key to achieving big goals, but nonprofits were known to have limited time, resources, knowledge, and support to do it successfully.

Not only was buy-in and consensus needed, but also a process for execution and management.

We’re there other alternatives to traditional strategic planning processes?

Hold on to that question.

Shift camera focus to another discussion —

“Does strategic planning for nonprofit organizations really work?”

Link is here. This is a great article and a question that hits closer to home for a lot of us. After all, strategic planning is a universal tradition, but there were accepted limits to the tradition because for one there’s a lack of empirical data regards the effectiveness between formal planning and actual performance.

Hold on to that question, too.

Someone presents a test scenario: A 3–5 year strategic plan is finally completed

But then they ask how might the plan be placed in front of the board’s and management’s thinking at all times given that other problems, crises, and opportunities were sure to arise in the future?

Isn’t this the cliched “world of rapid change” thing we’re so familiar with. Everyone will want to build a nonprofit culture that can:

  • think strategically
  • act fast
  • innovate
  • collaborate
  • be creative
  • be adaptive
  • that can execute, learn, reiterate etc.

— to accomplish their goals. And they might even be a part of one’s strategic plan.

But can they really?

The karmic wheel spinning continues. What I continue to see is the acknowledgement that “Yeah, it’s crazy out there. We need to be ready!”

But there’s an uneven emphasis between the plan and the capability. More weight is given to planning rather than if the organization is trained to actually perform and carry it out consistently. This needs to be reversed.

Plans are never dead. While each of those questions deserves a thorough post, strategic planning is not enough. Indeed, it’s about process, in fact all processes are collaborative, but let me update with some additional thoughts because it’s easy to say:

They failed to execute. They failed to implement it. Blah blah blah.

It’s valid, but you must dig more deeper than that.

1. Be aware of everyday capability

I define capability as the competency to do something reliably, consistently, and with discipline.

With that said, be aware of the difference between what you’re able to do once a retreat, and what you’re able to do every day, or at least through monthly intervals when bottlenecks do happen (and they will happen).

Are you able to learn along the way? Change your mind and correct course along the way?

Think strategic everyday co-creation rather than annual.

2. Behavior change requires habit changes

And habit changes requires the right environment for progress.

Typical answers usually come off like: “Keep the plan updated; manage it well over time; help people stay focused on the plan. When changes happen, you change the plan. The plan is a living adaptive document.”

But people drive plans. So emphasize behavior, not the plan. How are people learning and doing along the way?

How are people gaining new knowledge, then putting that knowledge to use within their organization?

If part of the strategic plan says “we must create a culture that’s innovative, creative, entrepreneurial, collaborative, and agile,” yet the environment is completely toxic and anathema to those things, how valuable do you think the plan really is?

It’s like the gym. On New Years Day, someone vows — made a personal strategic plan — to exercise regularly and clean up their eating habits.

The honeymoon period subsides and the energy dies down. That person, despite the plan, realizes that habit changes are really tough lifestyle changes, and that there is a lot of de-conditioning and re-conditioning to do.

But they’re constantly surrounded by friends, family, and colleagues with sub-par habits and crappy mental and emotional support systems.

Want to be more creative, adaptive, entrepreneurial? Then know that these aren’t just a bunch of values you turn on one day, and turn off on another. They’re habits, beliefs regularly practiced, and practiced deliberately in real-world situations.

If your culture and environment is anti-creative, anti-collaborative, then no strategic plan will help unless something in the plan will explicitly address behavior change.

Here’s a favorite quote of mine from Rise of the DEO: Leadership by Design:

Culture is the unique collection of beliefs and practices that communicates a company’s values, whether or not they’ve been formalized or articulated.

If there is a disconnect between beliefs and what’s practiced on a daily basis, then any plan will be dead weight.

3. Reframe the debate

A while back I was pleased to see someone mention two prominent SSIR articles: The Strategic Plan is Dead, Long Live Strategy and the more recent May 2015 Strategy Needs a Plan. I want to add my edited response here:

I’m inclined to support the first article by O’Donovan and Flower that the plan is “dead.” But then again, the plan isn’t really dead. The 2nd one written by Michael Alison’s article “Strategy Needs a Plan” is a sensible rebuttal, but I’d love to see a part 2.

Some power keywords and phrases highlighted in Alison’s article that we’re all too familiar with: Adaptive exploration, improve organization performance, execution, adapt to changing conditions, visionaries, entrepreneurial, ongoing exploration, emergent challenges/ops, invention.

It goes on. Both essays make great points and it’s interesting to see the scuffle hinge between having a strategic plan, or not having one.

But there are alternate options that run parallel to the either/or strategic planning debate. And this is going to inform other changemakers that there are other ways to reframe/reshape this conversation.

Alison cites John Kotter, a business leadership thought leader, and Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, Emeritus, at the Harvard Business School.

But Kotter had some hidden wisdom elsewhere which spills some sweet irony onto the whole strategic planning debate.

I dug this up a while back in a May 2005 Fast Company article titled “Change or Die”, apparently attributed to John Kotter:

The central issue is never strategy, structure, culture, or systems. The core of the matter is always about changing the behavior of people.

Mindsets and behaviors will drive the outcome of the strategic plan.

So if the epicenter is human behavior then we need to ask what those behaviors actually entail so people can better collaborate, form teams to co-create strategy, frame/reframe decisions, implement it, etc.

Should we not reframe the conversation in this direction?

So I want to make it clear that “changing behavior” is not something I mean lightly. I’m serious.

Before contemporary design thinking and lean startup principles, a lot was happening in the mid-to-late 20th century to help leaders re-train and re-skill from the ground up so that companies can grapple with everyday complexity, so that they can continuously learn and do, no matter how dire and confusing their circumstances got.

Many researchers and pioneers in the field of Organizational Behavior, Cognitive Psychology, and Applied Creativity — even before John Kotter, Roger Martin, Peter Drucker, et al — have already signaled that changing behavior was the key.

This is ongoing. There is an abundance of literature and empirical research suggesting that you had to get really surgical about how the organization thinks and collaborates on a daily basis.

Strategic planning was not the focal activity for achieving this kind of transformative change, especially if the end goals were explicitly 1. adaptability and 2.innovation capability

When you start exploring more literature and empirical research around those two things, you’ll realize — as I and others have — that we were asking the wrong questions all along.

Let’s close the rift between the 50,000 ft view and ground zero. We need to stop defaulting to strategic planning as the lens to solve problems of collaborative capability.