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Strategic Planning is Dead

Or rather, strategic planning should be dead. It shouldn’t be alive and well , but it is. Let me explain what I mean – starting by differentiating between strategy and strategic planning. Strategy is about making choices of how to apply your unique strengths (or exploit a competitor’s weaknesses) to create marketplace positions and operational approaches that can create a lasting advantage. At its best, strat­egic planning focuses on the “strategic” and is a mechanism to operationalize this strategy to make it a reality. However, strategic planning has largely become something entirely different – a process that starts not from strategic choices but rather from business goals and then outlines a plan of activities to achieve these goals. Strategic plans, as such, have largely become nothing more than a long-term tactical action plan. They are mostly created during strategy meetings or retreats, or by specialized strategy groups, and describe the detailed activities to, for example, grow revenue from online sales. Typically, companies create 3-year or 5-year plans that are meant to provide direction for the organization by cascading goals for each business unit, department, or team.

There are two fundamental challenges with this approach to strategic planning. The first is that it does not serve the purpose of true strategy, which is to provide guidance on decision-making – especially on trade-offs and choices. Consider the choice Netflix had to make early in its existence, when 90% of its revenue was coming from DVD sales. As Marc Randolph describes in his book That will Never Work, after a meeting with Jeff Bezos, which did not result in an agreeable acquisition deal, Netflix realized that they needed to get out of the sales business because they could not compete with Amazon in the retail space. This is an example of the sort of choice that is driven by true strategy – in this case, to be a DVD rental business. This was not an easy choice because it meant that Netflix would be giving up on the part of the business that was generating the vast majority of the revenue. But seen through the strategy lens, it was a much more logical decision to make when weighing the choices. A 3-year strategic plan that started with a goal of x% growth in revenue would not be useful in making decisions that arise from unforeseen events. This highlights the second challenge: in a fast-changing, uncertain, unpredictable world, a static 5 or 3 or even 1-year plan can very quickly become outdated and irrelevant. We need to look no further than any senior team who gathered in January 2020 to develop their strategic plan for the year, only to have it become obsolete not two months later. More concerning is that the timetable-driven strategic planning, and the narrow focus it engenders, take away from the ability to spot new threats and opportunities. This inability to assess the need as it is , versus as we thought it would be, and to pivot from the current business plan can be fatal when the market and context undergo a significant shift.

It is an oft-repeated cliché to say that no strategy survives contact with the enemy. Cliché or not, it is true. Even the most carefully thought out strategy can only account for the known challenges. As the world gets more uncertain, and our ability to forecast accurately diminishes further, it is only logical that plans need to be able to change. The most successful business strategies in today’s world are those that are flexible and adaptive. Strategy is as important as it ever was, but the practice of strategic planning is outdated and must evolve. Yet flexible does not mean constantly changing in response to every trend, challenge, or short-term economic reality. Developing strategies that provide a foundation for decision-making, but are responsive to meaningful change, requires a deep understanding of the unique and enduring strengths of an organization. It also requires a constantly evolving view of the opportunities for how and where to leverage these strengths. Creating flexibility in business strategy benefits from having:

Clarity of business purpose, values, and strengths

Changing direction is much easier when you can rely on a stable base, this stability is reflected in a grounded understanding of purpose, values, and strengths. Purpose provides a general direction (and inspiration), values articulate the non-negotiable behaviors, and strengths describe what unique aspects of the organization can be leveraged to create competitive advantages. Taken together, purpose, values, and strengths are the foundation on which a strategy can be built. Southwest Airlines is a fine example of a company that has been able to create a winning strategy around its strengths – high customer satisfaction and low costs enabled by standardized equipment and a deliberate, limited network. Herb Kelleher recognized the value of focusing intensely on strengths when he said, “as long as we never foolishly dissipate our basic strengths through shortsightedness, selfishness, or pettiness, we will continue to endure.”

What happens without a business purpose?

Articulated assumptions, hypotheses, and potential path-changing triggers

One of the challenges in creating adaptive strategies is that our confirmation bias nudges us to only seek information and data that validates our chosen approach. To overcome this challenge, it is helpful to articulate the assumptions and hypotheses that the strategy is predicated on and to go further to define some potential triggers that could cause these assumptions to be questioned. What moves from your competitors, or changes in the marketplace, or new information might invalidate your strategic assumptions? Back in 2013, a friend pointed me to a new product called Coin. The promise of Coin was that it would replace all the cards in your wallet. It was a single credit card-sized device that stored a collection of credit, debit and even membership cards that users could toggle through and swipe like a regular card. I immediately ordered one from their Kickstarter campaign but by the time I finally received my Coin 2.0 in 2015, Apple had introduced Apple Pay and the market for Coin all but disappeared. In this case, the strategy was predicated on a reality of the marketplace that changed very rapidly. In most cases, the market does not change this suddenly, although it changes faster than most people imagine. Looking for information that may invalidate your assumptions can provide the impetus needed to make a strategic pivot before it is too late.

On Taking an Outside View: How Past Successes Can Limit Your Growth Potential

An engaged workforce looking for opportunities and threats

The point of strategy is to enable an organization to take advantage of opportunities or avoid threats. This, of course, relies on the ability to identify these opportunities and threats. There are plenty of examples of companies that failed to adapt their strategies as needed because they were not sensitive to the threats (or opportunities) around them – Borders, Kodak, Blockbuster. With the sheer volume of threats and opportunities facing businesses today, companies that rely entirely on a small leadership team to make decisions will invariably miss opportunities and respond too late to significant threats. A few pairs of eyes cannot possibly spot everything. A flexible strategy requires all employees to understand not only the strategy today but also the assumptions behind it. An empowered employee base will then be able to identify when changes in the market, to regulations, or to technology challenge those assumptions and hence the strategy. What’s more, communication channels and a sense of permission must exist within an organization for those employees to surface their observations and findings to senior leaders in close to real-time.

An Alternative to Matrixed Organizations: Unlocking the Power of Your Employees

Great strategy is often described in hindsight as a combination of a leader’s foresight and a series of carefully orchestrated moves. The reality, when we dig deeper, is that most often it is not some especially prophetic foresight or an incredibly unchanging plan that leads to success.  Rather, it’s a series of pivots and shifts to the strategy in response to new intelligence or even luck. Strategic plans that are created based on a calendar or fixed time horizon and that are not proactive and responsive to change are increasingly harmful in a fast-changing world. Leaders who recognize this limitation can create strategy that is expected to change. It is designed to be flexible and is constantly pressure tested – and not just by a few leaders at the top.

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It’s Strategic Planning Season: What’s Your Game Plan?

Changing leaves, picking apples, watching football. Ah, these are the things of fall — and oh yes, don’t forget the dreaded strategic planning process. As certainly as the leaves will change colors in the fall season, so too will companies undergo strategic planning and budgeting.

Most employees think of it as a necessary evil — a time-consuming, closed up in a conference room forever, word-smithing process designed to justify (or rationalize) the numbers that the senior leaders say they must reach to satisfy shareholders. Maybe that’s too harsh, but ask many mid-tier managers and that’s the explanation you’ll hear. For companies that treat it this way, or allow it to be perceived as such, they are missing a powerful opportunity. For those who powerfully engage their team and treat it as a meaningful process, the results can yield a strong, differentiated strategy with the potential for strong execution and sustainable results.

There are many approaches to the process, but the most important thing to remember is to create a strategic plan that is relevant and one that’s well communicated to the team. Without a clear path, how will you set individual accountability, or know if you actually reached your goal? While most organizations take part in this planning process, their approach depends largely on the organization's leadership and the complexity of the environment in which the company plays. No matter the approach, every plan should help define the following.

Your Strategic Planning Process Should Clearly Define:

  • The purpose of the organization (baseline for everything the organization will do and be)
  • Expected goals and objectives in a defined time frame
  • 3-5 strategic initiatives that will fulfill the objectives (and the aligning tactics)
  • Resources required to execute initiatives and tactics
  • Accountability by position type (and even individual)
  • Key metrics that will be measured that define success

The “F” Word

Fall for me in one word is… Football. And just like a coach goes through deep preparation prior to the season, the general manager conducts the preseason strategic planning process. Like a GM in business, a coach determines the overall offensive and defensive approach the team will take all season and how best to defeat the competition. It all comes down to outperforming your competition on the field… every series, every day, every down. The only way to guarantee precise execution is to ensure the team understands, buys into and sees their role in the coaches’ game plan.

Of course, change and challenges are inevitable. While the game plan is set early in the season or game, issues will arise, fumbles will happen and strategies will need to be adjusted. No matter the weather or strength of schedule, a team’s success depends on the proper game plan preparation — accounting for competition and the elements — and putting the best players on the field to execute. The score (profit goals achieved) at the end is the ultimate gauge of your success.

A Sustainable Business Requires a Sustainable Planning Process

Why is this considered by many to be such a painful process? Primarily, because most companies seem to start completely over each year, trying to fixate on the market’s newest hot topic or trend. Ironically, most companies do a 3-year strategic plan — but then start the process all over each year, and usually come up with totally different ways to think about the market or strategies to focus on. The process rarely includes reviewing last year’s plan to see if they even achieved the metrics they committed to, or identifying what the upcoming year looks like compared to last year’s forecast.

On the other hand, some change is good. Don’t just use the identical presentation from last year and update the numbers. Just because you’ve followed a plan for the last 3 (or 20) years, doesn’t make it the right thing to do next year. You should always deploy zero-based investment planning. Much has changed with trends, your industry and your competition. Ensure your vision still has relevance and uniqueness to your key audiences, as this is where enhanced profits are found.

Pretty PowerPoints Don’t Equal Profit

Companies say they’re all about accountability, but few actually review the previous year’s strategic plan commitments to see if a manager’s forecast was correct or if individual commitments were met.

Companies should review these and start measuring each manager on their planning and forecasting capabilities. These skills make for a strong GM. Too many employees are promoted because they can make nice PowerPoint slides that come alive in a polished presentation to leadership. But can they envision a strategy and capably enroll a team to own, execute and achieve it? PowerPoint should be eliminated from the strategic planning process, as it is a crutch for many managers.

Every Player Should “Own” the Playbook

Engaging many levels of the organization helps the entire team take ownership of the plan, versus merely being told to execute what senior leaders think should be done. Plans that are rationalized or created mystically by senior leadership and passed down for execution are rarely successful. Just because you demand results (and even incentivize them), doesn’t mean the people responsible will deliver.

Plans created by multiple levels in the organization — especially mid and lower levels where it gets executed — have a dramatically better success rate. It’s a pretty simple philosophy: If your team is intricately involved in crafting the plan, they will feel ownership of it and ultimately more accountability to achieve it.

A well-developed and communicated strategic plan gives a company the best chance to rally the whole team around a common objective. Unfortunately, many companies only share the deep details of the plan with their most senior leaders and not the majority of the team responsible for making it happen on a daily basis. This makes it nearly impossible for everyone to be aware or engaged… so how are they supposed to execute it and ensure strategic alignment? Share your game plan early and often, especially when enhancements need to be made to address the changing market.

Benefits of the Strategic Planning Process

  • Clarifies focus for the organization — creating a common communication platform
  • Creates organizational alignment on priorities
  • Helps managers create incentive requirements
  • Increases productivity, as employees know what’s expected
  • Tells the organization what to stop doing

Think Big. Win Big.

A strategic plan must be realistic based on market conditions and the organization’s capabilities. There is definitely no place in football or business for hockey sticks. Senior leadership should reject any strategic plan that has a hockey stick financial plan. Period. The only exception might be within a business plan for a certain new game-changing technology or product launch — but never in a strategic plan for an entire business. If there is a hockey stick, break it over your knee.

At the same time, many companies want dramatic growth. You can only achieve this by truly redefining your approach to the market. This growth cannot come merely from share gain (because this usually leads to profit loss). Sustainable growth comes from being able to create demand in your current market, which isn’t tied to the organic growth the market gives you already, or that attained by utilizing your core competencies in other sectors.

It’s the leader’s responsibility to stretch the organization’s thoughts on what they truly can achieve. Gap International Consulting group talks about how the key to dramatically increasing your organization’s revenue (i.e. from $75MM to $500MM) is to start thinking of yourself at the larger size — “be” the larger business today. Only when you make decisions as if you were already at this target size can you achieve that type of growth. Otherwise, you make incremental decisions and end up only growing by incremental single digits at best. Make sure your team understands what you are trying to grow the business into and what their part is in that execution. It will excite and engage them if done correctly.

So, as shouts of “Rudy” echo in the stadium, Gatorade showers drench the coaches of winning teams that executed their game plans flawlessly. Victory comes to those who know winning starts long before the season.


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Is Your Strategic Planning Focused on Outcomes… or Just a Direction?

what is strategic planning for hospitals versus

There are “Many Roads to Rome”—but You Need an Address and a GPS to Get There

Dear Colleagues,

As the saying goes, “There are many roads to Rome.” And that is true.

But after traveling in Italy this summer, I can assure you that you do not want to go to Rome. You want to go to specific places in Rome.

To expand this metaphor: if you are traveling to Rome from, let’s say, Florence, you want to travel South/Southwest. However, that is only a direction that will leave you (hopefully) somewhere in Rome—or, if you are unlucky, just on the outskirts of the city.

In contrast, if you are traveling to Rome—instead of a global direction, you really want to go to a destination, a specific place, in Rome. For that, you need an address and probably (if you know Rome’s topography and lay-out) a GPS.

So… what does this have to do with education?

Too often, when doing strategic planning, schools and districts end up with global goals that only reflect a set of directions. The best case scenario here is that they end up going in the “right direction,” but they never reach their student-specific destinations. Another typical result is that their successful students maintain or extend their success, but their needy or unsuccessful students stagnate and remain the same.

In contrast, what schools and districts need to do is to identify their specific, desired destinations—that is, the objective and measurable academic and social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes that they want for all students from preschool through high school. These destinations should reflect the content, skills, processes, and subject-specific and trans-disciplinary applications that students need to learn and master at every grade level.

If “outcomes-based” strategic planning is used in place of “standards-based” strategic planning, schools and districts will be able to set their strategic “GPSs” to the path of least resistance. The clear result is that they will then have a much better chance of meeting their goals and attaining their outcomes.

As they say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

Using a Top-Down “Standards-Based” versus a Bottom-Up “Outcomes-Based” Approach to Strategic Planning

Earlier this past week, I was on a conference call with some district-level colleagues discussing the emerging strategic planning directions in their large urban/suburban county school district. Together, we discussed their superintendent’s interest in developing social, emotional, and behavioral standards for their students. Critically, we could have just as easily been discussing the district’s academic standards in literacy, math, and/or science.

My colleagues shared that their superintendent wanted to develop district-wide standards to guide the implementation of a whole-district, multi-tiered approach. My assumption was that these social, emotional, and behavioral standards would be connected to the district’s academic standards, creating vehicles toward the county’s strategic commitment to increase high school graduation and all students’ “college and career” readiness.

After the first minutes of the call, my first response was to ask my colleagues:

“What social, emotional, or behavioral competencies and skills do your students need—from preschool to high school—in order to facilitate graduation and help them to be college and career ready?”

My second question was:

“Wouldn’t you be better off identifying the specific outcomes that you want, and then generating your standards based on and aligned to these outcomes?”

As alluded to earlier, while most school districts employ a top-down “standards-based” approach to strategic planning, my work in the field has demonstrated that a bottom-up “outcomes-based” approach works better —relative to actually achieving the desired student-based outcomes. This is true whether we are talking about academic or social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes.

Consider the following: When the national Common Core State Standards (CCSS) website first went on-line, there was a prominent statement on its Home Page.

The statement basically said:

“These are just standards. Individual school districts will need to (a) operationalize these standards, (b) drill them down to academic scope and sequence progressions, (c) identify specific and measurable outcomes, (d) ensure that they are taught effectively using sound curricular materials and differentiated instruction, and (e) assess them formatively and summatively with reliable and valid measures.”

Unfortunately, many districts, schools, and teachers have not done this.

Instead, they are using the CCSS as their curricular, instruction, assessment, and evaluation templates. Moreover, they are compounding this problem as teachers in the same school at the same grade level are creating their own different CCSS lessons, teaching them “their own way,” and evaluating their outcomes using vastly different approaches.

This inconsistency ultimately undercuts instructional fidelity and accountability, and we do not get the collective student outcomes that we want .

Critically, the same thing has happened in states that have social, emotional, and/or behavioral standards—largely because specific outcomes have not been described and defined. This has been left to the districts, schools, and staff—resulting in a standards-based mess.

My point again is :

If districts, schools, and teachers need to eventually identify students’ academic and social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes, why would we not START by:

  • Identifying the outcomes first;
  • Then writing the standards to fit the outcomes;
  • Then generating the additional standards that might have been missed; and
  • Finally, “looping” back down to finalize the specific outcomes?

Examples of Academic and Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Outcomes

From an academic perspective, a bottom-up outcomes-based approach would focus on, for example:

  • The specific content, skills, processes, and subject-specific and trans-disciplinary applications that students need to learn and master—from preschool through high school—in identified academic areas (e.g., literacy, math, oral and written expression, science and civics, the arts and humanities).

To accomplish this, an integrated scientific, developmental, and pedagogical perspective is needed.  For example:

  • The current research and practice in literacy, identifies five functional, interdependent skill areas—phonemic awareness, phonetic decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
  • Each of these areas needs to be operationalized—for example, what types of comprehension skills and questions do we want students to learn, master, and apply (in different types of texts) at the preschool/kindergarten, elementary, middle, and high school levels?
  • Then, each of these areas needs to be developmentally validated—for example, at what age and/or development range or levels can students learn different types of comprehension questions?
  • Then, instructional progressions need to be developed where prerequisite knowledge and skills are identified, differentiated instruction templates are developed, formative and summative evaluation indicators and criteria are detailed, and available accommodations and modifications are embedded.

Critically, and consistent with this discussion’s theme, the guiding focus is on what we want students to be able to independently demonstrate .

For example, integrating science, literacy, mathematics, history, and ethics, we may want high school students to be able to (a) read and understand the purpose and steps of a chemistry experiment on pollutants in the atmosphere; (b) predict and prepare for the different phases or events that will occur during that experiment; (c) anticipate, respond to, and measure the outcomes of the different phases of the experiment; (d) generalize the results to a theory or set of universal principles; (e) apply these principles to one or more past historical events; and (f) frame the principles into an ethical dilemma contrasting the present benefits of an company that produces an important product, but that nonetheless releases small amounts of pollutants into the air, versus a boycott that might put that company out of business but benefit future generations.

While my example is complex (isn’t life?), the identification of the different science, literacy, mathematical, and ethical outcomes (and their prerequisites and progressions) is not. This is not rocket science. In fact, many schools, districts, states, and national professional associations have already done this work.

From a social, emotional, and behavioral perspective, a bottom-up outcomes-based approach would focus on competencies and skills that I have discussed in previous Blogs. That is, among the competencies that students—from preschool through high school—need to develop are the following:

  • Listening, Engagement, and Response Skills
  • Communication and Collaboration Skills
  • Social Problem-Solving and Group Process Skills
  • Conflict Prevention and Resolution Skills
  • Emotional Self-Awareness, Control, and Coping Skills
  • Awareness and Understanding of Others’ Emotions and Emotional Behavior
  • Positive Self-Concept, Self-Esteem, and Self-Statement Skills
  • Self-Scripting, Self-Monitoring, Self-Evaluation, Self-Correction, and Self-Reinforcement Skills
  • Social, Interactional, and Interpersonal Skills
  • Classroom and Building Routine Skills
  • Instructional and Academic Supporting Skills

Drilling these competencies down to a more functional level, below are twelve social, emotional, and behavioral skill clusters that all students also should learn and master progressively and before they graduate from high school:

  • Listening, Following Directions, Staying On-Task
  • Accurately interpreting Non-Verbal Cues and Voice Inflection
  • Being Positive, Motivated, and Persistent
  • Communicating Clearly, Constructively, and Courteously
  • Knowing how to Discuss, Interrupt, Debate, Agree, Compromise, and Disagree
  • Cooperating with and Accepting Others’ Opinions
  • Respecting Others, Being a Team Player, Taking on Different Group Roles
  • Knowing how to Ask for Help, and Accept Frustration or Consequences
  • Knowing how to Accept Failure, Losing, and Being Wrong
  • Showing Confidence, Dealing with Peer Pressure, Standing up for Self/Others
  • Controlling and Expressing Emotions, Responding to Others’ Emotions
  • Demonstrating Goal-oriented Planning and Time Management

Once again, these skills need to be taught in a developmentally-sound way, using effective differentiated instruction, and sound, field-tested curricular and pedagogical approaches. Moreover, once learned, we know that these skills will positively affect students’ academic performance, teachers’ classroom management, and schools’ climate and outcomes.

And so, Back to Strategic Planning

PLEASE hear me clearly : I am not saying that we do not need standards. I am simply questioning the directionality of how we generate standards while recommending an approach that will result in better outcomes .

In summary, when districts and schools begin their strategic planning process from a bottom-up outcomes-based perspective, they will identify the multi-tiered curricular, instructional, assessment, and evaluation outcomes that students need to demonstrate from preschool through high school.  But in addition, this bottom-up approach will more directly and immediately connect the professional development and training, coaching and supervision, resource and technology, and services and supports needed so that the student-focused outcomes can be attained for all students .

Critically, we have pretty much proven that the top-down standards-based approach does not work. For example, the Institute of Education Sciences released two new reports this past week describing surveys of Race-to-the-Top (RTT) versus non-RTT states, and School Improvement Grant (SIG) schools—analyzing their implementation of the policies and practices promoted by the U.S. Department of Education as a condition of receiving the billions of tax dollars awarded.

While it is important to read the specifics in these (and earlier) RTT/SIG evaluation reports, the “bottom line” is that:

  • The states and schools that received grant money implemented more of the recommended policies and practices than unfunded states and schools—but they did not implemented all or even most of the policies and practices ;
  • Most of the practices were incredibly global in nature (see below)—reinforcing the earlier point about vague strategic directions versus laser-focused student outcome destinations ; and
  • The results from the RTT states and SIG schools thus far are unimpressive—with, for the SIG program, a third of the schools showing worse student achievement results over time, and two-thirds of the schools showing just marginal levels of academic improvement.

And, once again, what are some of global, top-down RTT and SIG practices recommended by the U.S. Department of Education? To:

  • Use data to evaluate instructional programs
  • Use data to inform and differentiate instruction
  • Use benchmark or interim assessments at least annually
  • Implement strategies to ensure that ELL learners master academic content
  • Require student achievement growth as a component of teacher evaluations
  • Provide multiple-session professional development events
  • Replace the principal
  • Use financial incentives to recruit and retain effective principals
  • Change parent or community engagement strategies
  • Change discipline policies

If we are really committed to better, high, and achievable outcomes for all students , we need to rethink our strategic planning processes and how we identify our needed and desired goals and outcomes. To a large degree over the past decade or more, we keep “doing the same things” somehow expecting “different results.”

But we are not getting the different results .

The results we are getting include frustrated students, parents, staff, and schools.

Moreover, we keep looking at new “Band-Aids” —charter and magnet schools, eliminating teacher tenure, creating “smaller” schools—when we need to focus, once again, on student outcomes and the services, supports, strategies, and programs needed to get to the outcomes. [Note that there are lots of charter schools, work-at-will staffs, and small schools that do not produce positive student outcomes—because these are not causal factors that directly affect student achievement.]

For those of us who did not grow up with GPSs (never mind MapQuest), we continue to be amazed by this phenomenal technological innovation.  For those students who are growing up in schools that are not working, we need to apply the strategic approaches and innovations that DO work , and reset our GPSs .

It is time to get to our destination—instead of just wandering in the “right” direction.

I hope that you will reflect on this message’s information and thoughts. Know that I appreciate everything that you do as educational leaders in our country. I look forward to YOUR thoughts and comments. Let me know how I can help your state, regional cooperative, district, or school to move to the next level of excellence.

Dr. Howie Knoff


Written by Howie Knoff

Dr. Howie Knoff is a national consultant who has spent 30 years working at the school, district, university, and state department of education levels. He has helped thousands of schools in every state across the country implement one or more components of school improvement- – from strategic planning to effective classroom instruction to positive behavioral support systems to multi-tiered strategic and intensive academic and behavioral interventions (see www.projectachieve.net). One of his most-recent books was published by Corwin Press: School Discipline, Classroom Management, and Student Self-Management .

You can contact Howie by Twitter ( @DrHowieKnoff ) or email ( [email protected] ).

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Insights / All Leadership / Article

4 imperatives for streamlined strategic planning for functional leaders.

September 18, 2020

Contributor: Jackie Wiles

A so-called waste-free strategic planning approach efficiently produces a clear, measurable, communicable plan appropriate for today's fast-changing conditions.

Given the uncertainty and volatility as organizations reset business strategy , strategic planning can no longer last for months or wait for an annual update. The business context changes too fast and too radically, and scenario plans , enterprise strategy and strategic execution plans need to adapt accordingly.

“ A waste-free planning approach eliminates all but what is necessary and sufficient to communicate a strategic plan”

During the strategic planning process, enterprises, functions and business units identify the choices and actions required to develop the business model. Strategic plans define the roadmap for making these changes. But these processes and plans are often ineffective.

“Strategic plans are often too vague, noncommittal or unwieldy even in ‘normal” times,” says Meaghan Kelly , Senior Principal, Research, Gartner. “A waste-free planning approach eliminates all but what is necessary and sufficient to communicate a strategic plan.”

Download eBook: Streamline Strategic Planning for Disrupted Times

Waste-free strategic planning works from the beginning to quickly produce a clear, effective, measurable, communicable plan by focusing exclusively on a few key components:

To ensure effective execution of the strategic plan,  make sure to focus on the following four imperatives during the planning process. 

No. 1: Identify a shortlist of metrics to describe the target state of the organization

To brainstorm appropriate metrics to gauge your target state, you first need to be clear on that target state — which means understanding business strategy and your role in driving it. Corporate strategists might interview their CEO about desired outcomes; functional leaders might get insight from business leaders and other stakeholders. 

Ultimately, the metrics must relate to the stated outcomes — and you’ll need to estimate the metrics’ value on Day 1 to track your progress. The period to achieve those targets may be as short as one quarter or as long as five years. Key considerations are the volatility of the current environment and the need to give the strategy a chance to work. Longer-term strategic goals should still be tracked at least quarterly.

No. 2: Document and monitor key assumptions that underpin the strategy

Assumptions are essential tools for communication, because they reflect why the target end state and required initiatives are better than the alternatives and form the cognitive foundation of the selected strategy. In articulating the central drivers of value for the organization and industry — including the macro economy, customer behavior, competitors or technology — assumptions make cause-and-effect relationships explicit between:

Incorporate assumptions developed during scenario planning to better understand which of these relationships are highly reliable “truths” versus those that represent highly uncertain dynamics that are difficult to control or predict. 

Make sure the assumptions are concrete and carry quantifiable thresholds. Frequently monitor those thresholds for advanced warning of an imminent breach. A breach would trigger an urgent course correction. 

4 Imperatives for strategic planning process steps

No. 3: Identify key initiatives and milestones required to move strategic planning from initial to end state

To identify the select key initiatives that drive waste-free strategic planning, include initiatives that:

The strategic plan doesn’t need to include initiatives intended to run the business, such as “keep serving our customers” or “maintain employee engagement.” Such initiatives only seek to perpetuate the current state or trajectory.

After specifying the initiatives, set criteria and dates for key milestones and completion. 

No. 4: Craft a concise mission statement that captures the essence of the strategy

In creating a statement to surmise the essence or core elements of a strategy, strive for a single, aspirational sentence — but be willing to sacrifice conciseness for clarity. The focus should be more on getting the essential elements right than on finding the perfect turns of phrase. Teams caught in endless debate over wordsmithing have likely gone too far.

Benefits of a waste-free strategic planning process

By adapting your strategic planning model for only these necessary and sufficient parts, you enable:

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How to Design a Strategic Planning System

In this sequel to their well-received earlier collaboration for HBR, “Strategic Planning in Diversified Companies” (January–February 1975), Peter Lorange and Richard F. Vancil take the reader through the steps necessary to implement and carry forward a formal strategic planning effort. They identify six issues that top management has to deal with along the way: communication […]

In this sequel to their well-received earlier collaboration for HBR, “Strategic Planning in Diversified Companies” (January–February 1975), Peter Lorange and Richard F. Vancil take the reader through the steps necessary to implement and carry forward a formal strategic planning effort. They identify six issues that top management has to deal with along the way: communication of corporate goals, the goal-setting process, environmental scanning, the subordinate managers’ focus, the corporate planner’s role, and the linkage of planning and budgeting. The authors take up these problems separately, in each case analyzing how they can be met in both small companies and large—the principal distinguishing factor being whether the enterprise does business in one industry or more than one.

Every business carries on strategic planning, although the formality of that process varies greatly from one company to the next. Conceptually, the process is simple: managers at every level of a hierarchy must ultimately agree on a detailed, integrated plan of action for the coming year; they arrive at agreement through a series of steps starting with the delineation of corporate objectives and concluding with the preparation of a one- or two-year profit plan. However, the design of that process—deciding who does what, when—can be complex, and it is vital to the success of the planning effort.

A strategic planning system is nothing more than a structured (that is, designed) process that organizes and coordinates the activities of the managers who do the planning. No universal, off-the-shelf planning system exists for the simple and obvious reason that companies differ in size, diversity of operations, the way they are organized, and managers’ style and philosophy. An effective planning system requires “situational design”; it must take into account the particular company’s situation, especially along the dimensions of size and diversity.

While providing in this article some guidelines for designing strategic planning systems, we caution the reader to recognize that, for the reasons just stated, such generalizations can be treacherous. We do not aspire to prescribe a planning system for your organization; you must do the tailoring.

But some useful generalizations are possible, particularly in distinguishing between large companies and small ones and between highly diversified companies and less diversified ones. Size and diversity of operations generally go hand-in-hand, although exceptions to that rule are common. Several of the large airlines, for example, are in one business, and a number of mini-conglomerates with sales of less than $ 100 million have divisions in disparate industries. For convenience here, we shall talk about companies as “small” or “large,” defining those labels in terms of the typical characteristics shown in Exhibit I.

Exhibit I Characteristics of “Small” and “Large” Companies

While your company may not neatly match either set of characteristics, an understanding of why an effective strategic planning system is different in these two types of companies may enable you to design a system that fits your situation. We should note that the characteristics of small companies also describe a “typical” division in a large, diversified business. Therefore, division managers in such companies can follow our discussion at two levels simultaneously: (1) in their role as a part of the corporate planning process, and (2) in their strategic planning role for their own “small” businesses.

There are six issues on which a choice must be made while designing a strategic planning system. With each issue the proper choice for large companies will be different in most cases from the one for small companies. The issues are: communication of corporate performance goals, the goal-setting process, environmental scanning, subordinate managers’ focus, the corporate planner’s role, and the linkage of planning and budgeting. We shall describe each of these issues in turn and briefly discuss why the design choice differs in the two corporate settings.

Communication of Corporate Goals

A common roadblock in designing a formal planning system occurs when second-level managers ask headquarters for guidelines to focus the preparation of their strategic plans. These managers, uncertain how to tackle the assignment, may ask, implicitly or explicitly, “Tell us where you want us to go and the performance you expect from us, and we’ll give you a plan of how to achieve it.” These questions are not unreasonable, but acceding to them may violate the very purpose for undertaking strategic planning. To determine how goals should be communicated and how specific they should be is an important matter in planning system design.

When the president of a small company (or the general manager of a division of a diversified company) initiates the strategic planning process, he shares with his functional subordinates his thoughts about the objectives and strategy of the business. In most situations, however, he does not make explicit his performance goals. Instead, he asks his functional managers to devise a set of action programs that will implement the strategy of the business in a manner consistent with its objectives. In a pharmaceutical company that we observed, the R&D, manufacturing, and marketing functions jointly proposed a series of possible programs for developing various new drugs and modifying existing ones. But often, of course, this “programming” process involves only a single department.

Usually, the managers concerned realize that there is no need to anticipate the results of their planning efforts by trying to establish goals before establishment and evaluation of the programs. This would be time-consuming and burdensome and might also create false expectations among the functional managers.

The programming process is oriented much more toward analysis of alternative actions than toward establishment of corporate goals, primarily because the functional managers involved in programming tend (properly) to have a parochial point of view. They have a somewhat shorter time horizon than the president and focus their attention on their own areas of the business. The president is the one who selects the action programs for achieving the goals he has set for the business. Functional managers do not need to know the president’s performance goals, only that he wants the managers to recommend the best set of programs.

Because of its action orientation, the programming process usually lacks continuity from one year to the next. The objectives and strategy of the business may remain the same, but each year it is necessary to reexamine all existing programs and try to devise new ones. As a consequence, even though the programming activity commonly uses a three- to five-year time horizon, management pays little attention to the tentative goals established in the preceding year. Instead, the focus is on the current situation, the best set of action programs now, and the development of an achievable goal for the forthcoming year.

The diversity of the portfolio of businesses in large companies is often so great that it limits top management’s capacity for in-depth perception and familiarity with each business. Consequently, management has to rely on the relatively unconstrained inputs from the divisions.

Division managers do heed corporate guidance in the form of broad objectives, but as a rule top management should delay development of a statement of performance goals for the corporation. Usually, a division manager is in a better position to assess the potential of his own business if he is unbiased by corporate expectations. Delay also permits the top executives to change their approach to the task. In the absence of a formal strategic planning process, top management may have developed explicit goals for itself; but it cannot be sure of the appropriateness of the goals when viewed in the context of a set of independently arrived-at divisional goals. Divisional recommendations stimulate a better job of corporate goal setting.

Goal-Setting Process

From the division manager’s viewpoint, should he or corporate management set the division’s goals? This issue is sometimes cast as a choice between “top-down” and “bottom-up” goal setting. Actually, of course, management at both levels must agree on divisional goals. An important issue, however, remains: Which level in the hierarchy should initiate the process? In a homogeneous company, the same issue arises concerning the general manager and functional managers. The design of the planning system can strongly influence how this issue is resolved.

The goals that emerge from the programming process in a small company are tied to an approved set of action programs. Until the president has decided on the programs, no functional manager can set goals for his sphere of activity. Selection of a set of action programs, therefore, more or less automatically determines the performance goals for each functional unit. In many small companies—such as the pharmaceutical concern we spoke of—a “package” of action programs spells out the functional goals for every department, because of the interdependence of all the departments.

In a sense then, functional goal setting is a top-down process. The functional managers propose action programs, but the president with his business-wide perspective determines the programs and goals for his functional subordinates.

In a large company with a relatively diversified group of businesses, “capacity limitations” at the corporate level dictate a more or less bottom-up approach. The divisions initiate much of the goal setting, since it requires intimate knowledge of the industry-specific set of business conditions.

Establishing an effective corporate-divisional goal-setting climate in a large company is not easy. For the first year or two of a formal planning effort, the best approach in most situations is to allow the initiative for recommending divisional goals to rest with the division manager. This approach gives him support in running his business and encourages strategic thinking at the divisional level.

Later, after the corporate and divisional managers have gained experience in hammering out a mutually agreeable set of divisional goals, the division manager’s annual proposal for divisional goals will become more constrained than in the early years. In a divisionalized, consumer goods manufacturer we know of, the first years of carrying on the planning process were viewed frankly as a learning experience for division managers in making plans operational as well as for top management in learning to appreciate the strategic problems of each business of the company.

The cumulative experience of negotiating the goal setting over the years improves the effectiveness of the process. Corporate management can help nurture this development by creating a system that maintains a proper top-down/bottom-up balance. One way to achieve this balance is by withholding an explicit statement of corporate goals for the first year or two, while requiring the division manager to recommend goals for his division.

Environmental Scanning

A strategic planning system has two major functions: to develop an integrated, coordinated, and consistent long-term plan of action, and to facilitate adaptation of the corporation to environmental change. When introducing and developing such a system, companies commonly concentrate on its integrative aspects. The design of the system, however, must also include the function of environmental scanning to make sure that the planning effort also fulfills its adaptive mission.

Corporate management, of course, provides subordinates with a set of forecasts and assumptions about the future business environment. Since each manager, initially at least, draws the strategic plans for his sphere of responsibility more or less independently of his counterparts, all managers must have access to the same set of economic and other environmental forecasts.

Environmental scanning in small companies is a strategically oriented task that can go far beyond the mere collection of data about markets, competitors, and technological changes. A company that, for example, enjoys a large share of the market for a product used by middle- and upper-income teenagers and young adults may devote considerable effort in analyzing demographic trends and changes in per capita income. A fairly accurate forecast of market size five years hence is possible to make and would be useful in appraising the potential for the company’s growth.

The task of monitoring detailed environmental changes in large companies is too difficult to be performed by top management alone. Division management, therefore, is expected to study the external environment that may be relevant to their particular businesses. In these circumstances, headquarters typically provides only a few environmental assumptions—mainly economic forecasts.

Environmental scanning may play another important role in large companies that are interested in diversification through acquisitions. In one diversified electronics and high-technology company that set out to decrease its dependence on defense contracts, the vice president in charge of planning spent most of his time searching for acquisition opportunities. After establishing close ties with the investment community and certain consultants, he spread word of his company’s intentions.

Subordinate Managers’ Focus

In a strategic planning effort, where should the second-level managers direct their attention? What roles do the division manager, functional manager, and top management play? We shall consider these questions in terms of whether plans should be more quantitative or more qualitative, more concerned with financial detail or with strategic analysis.

Preparation of a functionally coordinated set of action programs for a small company may require a great deal of cross-functional communication. Much of this interchange is most efficiently expressed in dollar or other quantitative terms, such as numbers of employees, units of product, and square feet of plant space. Use of financial or quantitative data is appropriate for two reasons: (1) it helps each functional manager understand the dimensions of a proposed program and forces him to think through the implications of executing it; (2) it permits the president to select more confidently the set of programs to be implemented. The pharmaceutical company previously referred to, for instance, focuses on the funds flows that might be expected from the various strategic programs suggested by the functional departments.

In practice, the financial and quantitative aspects of functional planning become progressively detailed as the programming process continues, culminating in very specific plans that constitute the operating budget.

In a diversified larger company, top management wants each division to adopt a timely strategic outlook and division management to focus primarily on achieving that outlook. Particularly during the early years of the planning program, division managers should be permitted to develop as much financial detail in support of their proposals as they think desirable. As a result, they may generate more financial detail than necessary for strategic business planning. After a year or two, therefore, the corporate requirements for financial detail to support division proposals should be made explicit—and should be explicitly minimal.

Division managers should be asked to shift the focus of their efforts to identification and analysis of strategic alternatives, using their expertise to estimate quickly the financial implications. This focus has been a goal from the beginning, of course, but it is difficult to achieve at the outset. Failing to shift the focus is an even greater danger; the planning activity becomes a “numbers game” and never achieves its purpose.

Considering that the division manager may never have seen, much less prepared, long-range financial projections for his business, drawing them up should be a useful activity. Such projections help him lengthen the time horizon of his thinking; they oblige him to make his intuitive economic model of the business more explicit, which in turn enables him to forecast changes in financial performance. As a result, a division manager’s initial planning efforts tend to be financially oriented and, in many respects, analogous to long-range budgeting. Corporate management should design the requirements of the system to mitigate the pressures that initiation of formal planning poses for a division manager.

One important caveat for the chief executive of a large company: he should never allow himself to get so involved in the development of business plans that he assumes the division managers’ planning job. A situation that we investigated concerned the newly appointed president of a multinational company in the consumer products business, whose experience was mainly in marketing. He could not resist “helping” one of his divisions develop a detailed, more aggressive marketing plan. Such interference often inhibits the division from coming up with a realistic plan to which it can commit itself. In this case, quiet resistance effectively shelved the president’s ideas.

Corporate Planner’s Role

A major issue in the design of the planning system is where the corporate planner fits. Strategic planning is a line management function; a sure route to disaster is to have plans produced by staff planners and then issued to line managers. Strategic planning is essentially a people-interactive process, and the planner is only one in the cast of characters involved. If the process is to function effectively, he must clearly understand his proper role. The corporate planner’s function in small and large companies is quite different.

In a small company (or a product division of a large company), the planner performs the function of staff planning assistant to the president (or the general manager). While coordinating the planning activities of the functional managers, he concerns himself with the president’s problem of selecting the best set of action programs. Only the president—and his planning assistant—has a business-wide perspective of the choices, and the assistant must do the bulk of the analysis.

Cast in this role, the planner may become a very influential member of the president’s (or the general manager’s) executive team. If he uses his power sensitively, he need not lose effectiveness with his peers running the functional departments. They can appreciate the necessity for cross-functional analysis of program alternatives. Managing the planning process is an almost incidental role for the assistant, since he merely formalizes the analysis that leads to a coordinated set of action programs.

In a large company, the corporate planners organizational status can have significant symbolic value in conveying to division managers the importance of formal strategic planning and the difference between it and conventional budgeting. The planner’s role initially is that of a catalyst, encouraging line managers to adopt a strategic orientation. He helps corporate management do a better job of resource allocation among the divisions, partly by assisting the division managers in strategic planning for their businesses. But he must not succumb to the temptation to become more involved in formulating the plans, or he may lose his effectiveness.

System maintenance and coordination is the planner’s primary function as the planning effort matures; he monitors its evolution and maintains consistency. His tasks differ greatly from the mainly analytical role of the planner in the small company.

Linkage of Planning and Budgeting

The steps in a typical planning system represent an orderly, gradual process of commitment to certain strategic alternatives. Each step is, theoretically at least, linked to those preceding. In financial terms, this linkage may be quite explicit; for instance, a division’s profit forecast prepared in the first planning cycle may become the profit commitment for next year’s operating budget. Although few companies expect to achieve this financial linkage in narrowing the choices, all the parties involved in the process should understand the intended relationship between the cycles.

How fast this narrowing should be is a situational design question that depends on the particular corporate setting. A tight linkage between planning and budgeting indicates that more strategic commitments have been made at an earlier stage. A loose linkage, on the other hand, implies that the narrowing process is slower and will occur mainly late, in the budgeting stage of the process.

Exhibit II shows examples of slow versus rapid narrowing profiles. Notice that a company that does little narrowing in the early stages faces the task of considering a large number of strategic issues in the budgeting stage. This implies that either the company is equipped with an adequate organization to process an immense and “peaky” budgeting workload, or it will neglect some choices altogether, with the likely result that the quality of its allocation decisions suffers.

Exhibit II Slow Versus Rapid Narrowing Profiles in the Planning Process

A small company with little diversity in its operations may wish to adopt an early or rapid narrowing process, since the functional and corporate executives involved are thoroughly familiar with the strategy of the few businesses in question. Then functional managers can proceed directly to the development of action programs to continue implementation of that strategy. Quantitative financial linkage between the selected programs and the resulting budgets is feasible, and “tight” linkage of this type is common practice.

In a large company, linkage is usually looser and the narrowing process more gradual. During the start-up phase top management should give division managers plenty of time to devote to strategic thinking about their businesses—but the lower-level executives must remember to differentiate that activity from long-range budgeting, with its related requirement of divisional performance fulfillment.

As the system matures, however, management can gradually accelerate the narrowing process without jeopardizing the creative aspect of planning. A natural result of this progress is a more precise definition of the linkage between the planning cycle and the budgeting cycle. A large producer of heavy equipment we know of, for instance, has “tightened up” the linkage between planning and budgeting. The top executives believe that this development is a natural consequence of their increasingly cohesive strategic points of view.

Evolving Systems

In sum, significant differences exist between the planning procedures used in the two types of companies we have examined. The issues that management must address, and our attempt to delineate what is good practice in small and large companies, are summarized in Exhibit III.

Exhibit III Approaches to Planning System Design Issues

In companies that are not very diversified and are functionally organized—as well as product units of diversified corporations—top management carries on the strategic thinking about the future of the business. In such companies, a formal process to help organize that reflective activity is frequently unnecessary, in view of the few managers involved. Instead, formal strategic planning focuses on the development and review of innovative action programs to implement the strategy. The planning system reflects that focus: goal setting is top-down, linkage to the budget is tight, and the staff planning officer plays a major role as cross-functional program analyst and environmental scanner.

In companies that operate in several industrial sectors and are organized into product divisions, initiating a formal strategic planning process is a major task. The first year or two of such an effort must be viewed as an investment in fostering a planning competence among division managers; the payoff in better decisions at the corporate level must wait until the system matures.

If the planning system is to survive as more than an exercise in pushing numbers into the blank spaces on neatly designed forms, it must evolve rapidly along several dimensions. A mature system, however, can be invaluable, helping both corporate and divisional executives make better and better-coordinated strategic decisions.

Any company—indeed, any organization—is a dynamically evolving entity whose situational setting is subject to change. Accordingly, to remain effective, the design of the planning process is a continuous task requiring vigilance and insight on the part of management.

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Welcome to the knowledge center about Strategic Planning.

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What is Strategic Planning? Meaning.

Strategic Planning consists of the process of systematically developing and implementing activities and plans to reach the goals, purpose and objectives of the organization within the strategic context (environment).

SP is a continuous process of making present entrepreneurial (risk-taking) decisions systematically and with the greatest knowledge of their futurity; systematically organizing the efforts needed to carry out these decisions. It may or may not also include measuring the results of these decisions against the expectations through organized systematic feedback.

SP involves the application of thought, analysis, imagination and judgment. It is a responsibility rather than a technique. It is the analytic thinking and commitment of resources to action. It deals with the futurity of present decisions.

Strategic Planning versus Strategy

SP is more or less a synonym for Strategy, but the term "planning" has a deliberate meaning attached to it, while "Strategy" can accommodate both the emergent, flexible, dynamic vision to strategy formation as well as the traditional deliberate, intended, military, planned form. In other words, SP is one of the Ten Schools of Thought (The Planning School) as described by Mintzberg. However, In everyday parlance, SP is considered and used as a synonym of strategy.

Types of Strategic Planning

There are quite a few strategic planning types, depending on their:

Steps in a Strategic Planning Process

A strategic planning process can take many forms. For the classical steps see Armstrong's Five Strategic Planning Steps .

A strategy process can be more or less deliberate (planned) or emergent (flexible).

Compare with: Five Forces   |  Core Competence   |  Deliberate Strategy   |  Emergent Strategy   |  Hoshin Kanri - Policy Deployment   |  Strategic Analysis

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Companies with a clear vision  outperformed others 15 times  over the past 60 years, according to a report from Cutting Edge Information, an independent research company in Durham, NC.

Without a clear plan, companies waste time and resources in changing directions rather than aligning resources to achieve real progress in key areas. That is why more companies are investing in strategic planning workshops to prepare for the future.

Inspire the Future: Strategic Planning Workshop by Learn2


In the Inspire the Future workshop   p articipants will prepare for  your organization’s future in the form of a strategic   plan with clear direction. Groups will work together in this  leadership development experience   to define how to avoid obstacles, define the behaviors to achieve the plan, complete the action plans, and identify the milestones/metrics to inspire the behaviors and actions required   from team members .


Put the right people in the room – which is often everybody.

  • Listen to all team members vent about the past, then accurately examine the present
  • Envision the future clearly so team members can latterly see where they are going.
  • Create a 12-month action plan to get there
  • Review progress at 30, 60 and 90 days to celebrate progress
  • Reprioritize efforts as necessary.


  • Align everyone’s efforts to achieve incredible results for the company
  • Take massive action in the present that is aligned with the desired future business   goals
  • Anticipate and overcome obstacles before they slow down progress
  • Define the behaviors that construct  versus  destroy   progress
  • Achieve massive results – even leapfrogging the competition

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