My key takeaway from this week’s readings is that the true value of strategic planning lies not with the output of a lengthy planning document that collects dust on a shelf somewhere, but rather in going through the process itself. That is, requiring key decision makers in the organization to step away from day-to-day operations to have a simple, thoughtful, strategic conversation. A common theme throughout the literature is valuing simplicity over complexity in this process. If done correctly, with an appreciation for the organization’s particular “strategic style”, as noted in by Reeves, Love and Tillmanns in “Your Strategy Needs a Strategy”, the strategic planning process can lead to better real-time decisions made by managers in the organization in their day-to-day work.
Throughout the readings, there are recommendations for elements of a successful strategic planning process. The one that resonated the most for me was outlined in Kaplan and Beinhocker’s MIT Management Review article, “The Real Value of Strategic Planning” – to paraphrase, the strategic planning meeting should be conversational in nature. In my experience, strategic planning meetings have featured far too many people in the room to foster an environment where these productive conversations can take place. One likely explanation is that participants want to feel as comfortable as possible. For middle managers, having their key staff members there provides assurance that they can be tapped if difficult questions are asked. After all, it is these staff members that likely prepared all of the lengthy read-ahead materials. For senior executives, having more people in the room might provide a sense of more buy-in to their strategic decisions.
I came across an interesting article that sheds further light on this topic in the Jan/Feb 2014 Harvard Business Review by Roger Martin, called “ The Big Lie of Strategic Planning” (See: https://hbr.org/2014/01/the-big-lie-of-strategic-planning). In it, Martin argues strategic planning should be inherently uncomfortable. Lengthy strategic planning documents are just one of three “comfort traps” of the strategic planning process that executives often fall prey to. One of Martin’s proposed solutions is to keep the strategy statement simple – summarizing one or two strategic choices in a one page document. This helps keep the conversation focused on strategic challenges rather than the more comfortable topic of strategic plans.
The strategic planning process does not have to be as complicated as many organizations tend to make it, particularly, if the end goal of the process is for the key decision makers involved to leave the meeting with “prepared minds” that are able to make better real-time decisions in their day-to-day jobs as suggested by Kaplan and Beinhocker. This is particularly relevant for organizations with “Adaptive” or “Shaping” strategic styles, where executives are required to react nimbly in unpredictable business environments. Having fewer people in the room and working off of a one-page strategy document seems to be an excellent way to foster an environment where these simple, uncomfortable, but productive conversations can take place.