Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Strategic Planning as a Game of Inches- Specifically the Six Inches Between Your Ears

A recent article by Ray Gagnon examines the strategic planning process from a sort-of meta-perspective.  You could almost think about it in terms of a strategy for strategy planning.  The main argument is that most organizations have a basic framework for strategic planning and are familiar with the nuts and bolts of that process, but the success of that strategic planning process can be tied more closely with the mindset of the strategic planners, and the organization as a whole.

What Gagnon proposes is that too much time is often spent worrying about things like the “models” that the planners will use or the venue that the group will use, but the fundamental mindset behind the strategic planning is often overlooked since it is less tangible than those other concerns. Simple awareness of the organization’s mindset and minimal investment in it at the beginning of the process can have a multiplier effect as planning progresses, and can help avoid situations where the planners get bogged down needlessly.

Gagnon and his team have developed a set of principles that they bring to any strategic planning exercise.  And again: the simple act of acknowledging these principles is a huge step in preparing the members of an organization responsible for strategic planning for the task at hand.

First, he advocates a “beginner’s mind”.  That is, experienced members of a strategic planning team bring bias with their experience.  Further, because those members were chosen to be a part of the strategic planning process, there is a tendency for members to be overconfident in their beliefs.  But experts are often experts in the past, not the present.  Before the strategic planning process even begins, members should try and exercise some humility so as not to dismiss new ideas, or ideas that might be unfamiliar.

Next, he warns about the dangers of navel-gazing, and encourages the strategic planners to adopt an “outward focus”.  The tendency in an organization is to focus on itself, since that is what it knows best.  But in terms of strategic planning, these members should devote at least as much time to competitors, the operating environment and to the organization’s customers.  At this early stage, it isn’t the time for debate, but rather it is important to set the framework in which the organization exists.  As a corollary to this principle, Gagnon also advises the organization to “face reality”, meaning the organization needs to accurately assess its situation, internally and externally, in order to set the right strategy.  It is far better to swallow the bitter medicine of reality in a strategic planning session, than to craft a strategy that only works in a world that doesn’t exist.

Next, Gagnon admits that the type of people typically asked to be a part of strategic planning are generally from highly competitive environments, each with their own strong opinions and agenda.  Get these biases out in the open, plan for them, and create a set of ground rules that work with and around them.  In this way, the organization can mitigate the effects of these inherent preferences from the beginning. The key point seems to be that predictability throughout the strategic planning process is more important than the internal politics of the organization.

Related to this point is the idea of placing value directly on ideas, rather than their sources.  Gagnon stresses that this is the most important principle to highlight at the outset of strategic planning session.  When working with planning groups, he asks executives to “leave titles at the door” so that the value of the idea can win over the status of the contributor.  In some cases, this may prove to be impossible, which is why he recommends sometimes bringing in impartial third party facilitators, and not allowing the CEO or someone with formal authority to run the planning sessions, so ideas may be freely contributed.

Gagnon’s final principle is “implementation is paramount”.  While strategic planning inherently is about ideas, often big abstract ideas, here he advises to keep practical concerns at the forefront of the strategic planning.  While strategic planning is difficult work, the implementation after the fact is when the “real work” begins, and obviously where success or failure takes hold.

The final point Gagnon makes is that strategic planning requires mental readiness.  If the team members, or the organization isn’t mentally prepared for the strategic planning process, or for a change in strategy, the process is hamstrung from the beginning.  This is something to keep in mind from an overall perspective.

Ultimately, Gagnon asks us to consider: “which mindset do you think is more conducive to developing the best blueprint for your company's future?”

I would pose the question: do you think the right mindset is as important as Gagnon makes it out to be?  Is there anything that he may have missed, or misstated?

Article: Strategic Planning: Establishing the Right Mindset
By: Ray Gagnon


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