Strategic Planning

Strategic Planning is a common — and commonly frustrating — organizational practice. Most organizations recognize the need to periodically stop and take stock, refresh the "Big Picture" and commit to some broad brush efforts that would (hopefully) frame activities within the organization for some number of quarters or years. Many strategic plans, however, remain on the shelf (for some of my clients, they remained shrink wrapped!).

The commonly frustrating element of Strategic Planning is that there are so many interests to balance, so many models of how to proceed, and so many unknowns that the exercise seems almost academic. For those preferring to work on specific projects with concrete outcomes, Strategic Planning can be frustrating.

In reality, Strategic Planning is a mixture of different problem types, and that understanding that mix can greatly reduce the frustration and improve the quality of the outcomes.


While a vision statement is appropriately framed without reference to current events, the strategic plan has to operate in the real and immediate world.  The strategic planner has to consider the variety of ways in which current events could evolve into multiple futures. The plan has to be robust enough to survive despite our lack of 20/20 foresight. Indeed, the first step in strategic planning is to enumerate the theaters within which the plan must play.


While dilemmas may surface in visioning, they are even more pungent in strategic planning. The most compelling dilemma will be that of vision vs. capability. The strategic plan has to identify and address those areas where the company cannot deliver on the vision in its current configuration. These will become the developmental agenda for the company (process improvement, skill acquisition, possible mergers, etc.).

The second major dilemma in strategic planning is that of change vs. stability. “The way we have always done things” is not be dismissed easily; it expresses what the organization can deliver efficiently and effectively. When the strategic plan calls for a shift in company practice, the planning effort takes on an aspect of change management. Luckily, there are well articulated practices to support organizational change; they require more than simply announcing the change and rewarding compliance.

The third dilemma common in strategic planning is inclusion vs. focus. It is tempting to restrict the planning group to the minimum necessary to secure a swift and tight plan. But involving a broader group leads to greater buy-in and greater anticipation of problems in implementation; it also leads to a broader forum for new issues and concerns.

These are dilemmas inherent in strategic planning in general. There will also be the substantive dilemmas unique to the company or industry. These should have been identified in the vision.


For all of its subtlety, there is a layer of strategic planning that is more straightforward: given our strategic intent, what processes have to be in place? And performing at what level? Translating strategic objectives into required work flows is one of the most critical steps in strategic planning; it ought to have the character of a puzzle.

Note this is different from decomposing the plan into its various functional components! That more common approach leaves untouched the actual work requirements of the plan; it only identifies who will be responsible for pieces of the work. The real challenge of a strategic plan is defining integrated work flows that will cut across functions.