What if all the strategic planning models are wrong?


If you ask people what strategic planning entails, you will probably get a list that looks something like this:

  1. Define your mission, vision, goals and measurable objectives
  2. Conduct environmental scanning/a situation analysis
  3. Formulate a strategy to achieve your goals and objectives
  4. Develop and implement an action plan
  5. Measure and evaluate
  6. Begin the cycle again

The problem with this approach is that it is inexorable. The reiterative strategic plan begins to take on a life of its own, and we remain so focused on the defined targets that we can miss really important things that are happening in the periphery.

Examples from the business world are abundant:

  • The introduction of disruptive technologies that wipe out industry leaders (who remembers who made the last great typewriter?)
  • Financial and economic crises triggered by an excessive focus on short-term shareholder return rather than sustainable value creation (need I cite the 2008 financial meltdown?)
  • The incapacity to cope with changes in the operating environment (shifts in public perceptions effectively killed the nuclear industry in the United States after the Three Mile Island incident)

Another danger associated with this planning process is our tendency as a species to filter out gradual change. Don’t believe me? Watch this video.

Not only do 50% of people who are new to this experiment miss the gorilla strolling through, most people also miss gradual (but in retrospect flagrant) changes like the curtains becoming a different color because we are so focused on the ball. In the same way, the focus of a strategic planning process may keep us from preparing for other important, but unexpected, developments, what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls Black Swans. (N.B. “Preparing for” does not imply “predicting”. It means building resilience into the system.)

Another perspective is provided by James Lukaszewski in his book Why Should the Boss Listen to You: The 7 Disciplines of the Trusted Strategic Advisor. He outlines three types of problem-solving: linear, intuitive and strategic thinking:

  • In linear thinking, the problem is disassembled, analyzed, and the final solution is incremental or entails rearranging the initial elements.
  • In intuitive thinking, the solution tends to be a Big Idea.
  • In truly strategic thinking, the solution is transformational. The problem has been reframed in such a way that fresh and innovative approaches are possible without resorting to a Silver Bullet.

Using this definition, the strategic planning process suddenly doesn’t look so strategic! Another important note is that the model of strategic planning is based on inductive reasoning (moving from the particular to the general — data-driven), which is characteristic of American and British cultures (the cradle of much management theory), whereas many other cultures tend to reason by deduction (moving from the general to the particular — principle-driven).*


* Geert Hofstede and Gert Jan Hofstede provide an interesting discussion of the origins and consequences of reasoning styles in Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind (2005) McGraw Hill: New York. 



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