Take a long-term view of strategic planning

Forgoing strategic planning due to time constraints places many leaders in the "whack-a-mole" game; they are constantly fighting fires and getting little assistance from their support staff.


Most organizations do some form of strategic planning. However, very few reap the full benefits of a robust strategic planning process. In fairness to the organizations that fail, there are numerous pitfalls lying in wait for those who approach strategic planning without a comprehensive understanding of what is needed to realize success.

During my career, I made 10 significant job changes either through an internal promotion or by changing organizations. In eight of those moves, there was no strategic plan at my level of the organization. In all eight cases, my predecessor had been fired or marginalized. I do not think that this was by coincidence.

Strategic planning is an essential part of doing business. For those who claim that they cannot afford the time for strategic planning, I would argue that they cannot afford not to invest the appropriate time. Forgoing strategic planning due to time constraints places many leaders in the “whack-a-mole” game; they are constantly fighting fires and getting little assistance from their support staff because they have not provided clear direction and accountability. The role of the leader becomes significantly more enjoyable and successful when the direction is clear and employees understand their role in accomplishing the goals and objectives.

Leaders who lament that they don’t have enough time to develop and execute a strategic plan will oftentimes delegate the strategic planning process to others. However, without senior leadership participation, strategic planning rarely becomes a meaningful endeavor. The real or perceived lack of ownership by the senior leader is readily apparent to the rest of the organization. Without commitment from the top, employees typically will place much less emphasis on the planning process.

Prior to developing a strategic plan, every organization must take an external and internal view of its current and future operating environment. Externally, a review of economic conditions and the competitive environment is clearly needed to develop a meaningful plan. Assuming that your competition is “slow and stupid” and ignoring the volatility of current economic conditions can lead to disastrous consequences.

From an internal perspective, many organizations fail to be brutally honest in their self-assessment of current strengths and weaknesses. Overestimating your organization’s current performance can change your strategic goals to becoming “stretch goals” due to the inaccuracy of the baseline.

Another major pitfall in the strategic planning process is the alignment and breadth of priority setting. In order to maximize the impact of strategic planning, every level of the organization must be aligned in its priorities.

When I was working with the United States Air Force on developing a new strategic planning process, we visited one of the largest and most well-run consumer product organizations. Its vice president of strategic planning emphasized the importance of mapping strategy across all organizational levels to ensure alignment. If a priority at the plant level could not be linked to priorities at the corporate level, then the plant priority needed to be challenged. Vertically mapping strategic priorities across organizational levels is crucial to achieve significant change in an organization’s performance.

Almost every strategic planning expert will agree that leaders should limit the number of strategic priorities to five or less. This guidance is much harder to execute than most would think. Organizations are facing numerous challenges, and the default position is to try to fix everything immediately. This type of strategic planning typically overtaxes the resources of an organization and eventually leads to “planning to fail.”

Leaders have to separate areas they want to incrementally improve from those areas that need significant improvement. The areas needing significant improvement are the ones that should be included in the strategic planning process. However, all the other areas—those needing only incremental improvements or those not having the same level of urgency as the strategic priorities—must still continue to be managed, or they will become crisis areas for future strategic planning.

The lack of a governance process is an additional pitfall for organizations that embark on strategic planning. Many of us have spent valuable time developing a strategic plan only to set it on the shelf until we feel the urge to develop another plan in subsequent years. This lack of governance leads to a static plan and a lack of accountability in terms of the actions required to execute the plan. Strategic Planning Reviews should be held at a minimum of every other month. These meetings should be short on briefings and long on discussion. It is critical that these reviews don’t mix daily issues with strategic issues. If this mix occurs, the meeting normally becomes a meeting of “firefighting” as opposed to strategic thinking. Finally, governance must include a strong link to an organization’s performance management system. If it is important enough to be included in the strategic plan, then it must be important enough to be included on individual performance reviews.

The last major pitfall revolves around communication; even when the senior leadership team develops a solid strategic plan, it needs to develop a plan to communicate that strategy to the rest of the organization. There is an old saying that says, “good leaders get everyone rowing the boat, great leaders get them all rowing in the same direction.” Employees need to understand where the senior leaders are taking them and why. Armed with this knowledge, the opportunity for a much higher level of employee engagement exists and, subsequently, a much higher chance of success.

Ultimately, you have to ask this question: “If you are not leading an effective strategic planning process for your organization, then who is?” This is the question I pose to senior leaders in our executive leadership classes. The answer is almost always –“nobody”.

Can your organization survive if the leadership team is solely focused on the problems of today as opposed to preparing for the challenges and opportunities to come? Strategic planning is paramount to an organization’s long-term competitive viability. Too often, the mistakes are made that make strategic planning a “paper” exercise as opposed to a meaningful, worthwhile leadership process.

Parke is a faculty member and the executive director, non-degree programs, for the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UT), Center for Executive Education. A native of East Tennessee, Parke earned his bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering and executive MBA from UT, joining the university shortly after earning his MBA in 2007. At UT, Parke teaches courses in change leadership, performance management, and talent management.

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