Why Strategic Planning Needs a New Strategy

The  “Five Year Strategic Plan” is obsolete, thanks to the frenetic pace of change that demands unprecedented organizational spontaneity and flexibility to stay ahead of the game. 

As a consultant who supports organizations in developing and implementing their strategic plans, I work with different planning methods given the adaptive nature of organizations and issues they work to solve.

Although I refer to the process as strategic planning, I reframe the assignment as adaptive planning - creating a plan that positions the organization to respond to and deliver their services in such a way that accounts for the rapidly shifting environments they operate within. If you are considering an upcoming planning meeting, you may find my process helpful to clarify goals and create a dynamic and effective process.


Step #1: Gain Clarity of Purpose & Outcomes

My initial questions to clients when I am scoping a potential strategic planning effort are:

  • What specifically are you hoping to achieve through a strategic planning process?
  • What’s important to you about having these outcomes? And when you get that, what will you have?
  • How will you know when you are successful - what will you see, hear, feel, etc.?

These questions define what specifically needs to be planned for, and why. Once the “why” of the plan have been clarified, it is time to solidify the objectives of the planning process. The objectives drive the rest of the strategic planning process and determine who the stakeholders are, who needs to be in the meetings and what methods and activities the group will participate in to develop and implement their plan.


Step #2: External and Internal Diagnosis

Diagnosis is an integral part of planning. It is here where we refine the issues, possibilities and resources that may support and/or hinder the process and ultimately the plan. Diagnosis is also a way to help focus the planning efforts.

To sustain adaptable plans, clients often need to include more voices and perspectives than they might have anticipated. Thus, the initial step in my preparation is to collect information from all the stakeholders of the plan. If the plan focuses on staffing, then all employees, board members, vendors and clients would be considered stakeholders. If the plan focuses on creating community services for youth, then educational institutions, after school programs, teachers, youth, juvenile justice professionals, parents, etc., all need to be considered stakeholders. Whether you are planning for employee turnover or increasing youth participation in civic life, internal and external stakeholders must be engaged in the process of diagnosing the current state and envisioning the future.


These next two steps take place with the planning team, in the room. This is my favorite part of the process as this is where all the preparation to plan gets actualized, and the group works together, leveraging their knowledge to think deeply and broadly about the issue(s) at hand.


Step #3: Develop Shared Understanding

During this phase, it is vital that everyone in the room has a shared understanding of the current environment, the specific issues at hand, the purpose of the meeting, and agrees upon the elements that support and hinder their planning effort. Only with the good, the bad and everything in between on the table can groups begin to come up with adaptable solutions and plans.

I want to emphasize the word “adaptable” because the problems organizations are working to solve are not if/then problems, or either/or problems; they are both/and dilemmas, and only both/and solutions are adaptive enough to address them. The questions in this phase become multi-faceted and require deeper analysis and reflection to answer, but with the right people and enough stakeholders involved, potential solutions emerge. The questions during this phase tend to look like this: What actions can we take to get us to our agreed upon goals, that also minimize the constraints?

Questions like these help the group engage with curiosity and stretch their mental maps of what is possible. Questions like these help groups move pass polarized positions and towards consensus; helping groups understand barriers in their way and thus make adaptive plans that can be sustained.


Step #4: Create Consensus & Ownership

The penultimate step is to get consensus as to which ideas to implement first. The ideas and their implementation should be treated as experiments; held lightly and with curiosity; pursued with little attachment to the specific program names and strategies, and with steadfast attachment to specific results.

With consensus built, we move to action planning, or simply put, “Who is going to do what by when?”

The most important questions at the end of this phase become: How will we measure and evaluate our efforts?


Step #5: Implement, Evaluate, Rinse and Repeat

The biggest threat to any successful planning process is not creating an action plan to actualize the strategic plan. Or as Business Guru Joel Barker philosophically waxes, ”Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.”

With a plan created, it is time to implement and hold stakeholders accountable to the agreed-upon metrics. As the plan unfolds, and the context in which you are working takes unexpected twists and turns, you must continue to evaluate the effort and make necessary tweaks. Evaluation cannot wait until the next planning session; it needs to take place at a similar pace as the changing context. Without attachment to the programs or strategies developed through the planning process, you must rigorously evaluate the new normal, rinse off the previous plan and repeat the adaptive planning process.

Planning is a vital part of an organization’s life. Planning adaptive responses to the shifting environments and building consensus about the measurable actions creates a results-oriented plan that is flexible enough to withstand the torrent of change that inundates us daily.