Strategic planning: an oxymoron?

Everyone in business wants to demonstrate their added value, and the overuse of the word “strategic” has exploded as a result.  Do you know any consultants who don’t claim to be strategic? Most professional communicators now claim to practice “strategic communications”. Web sites are not endowed with content plans, but content strategies. Many of professional associations take “strategic planning” as their standard for best practice. And so on.

But what if it doesn’t actually exist? And what if planning and strategy are actually opposed to one another?


Henry Mintzberg, one of the most preeminent scholars of business management, makes exactly this claim in his 1994 work The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning: Reconceiving the Roles for Planning, Plans, Planners.

He backs up his argument with well documented empirical data that strategic planning doesn’t work. He also wonders why Western capitalism remains so enamoured of the very concept it despised as embodied by political capitalism and the planned economy.

In a nutshell, he claims that strategy is a creative process of adaptation, whereas planning is a rigid and inexorable process of control and compartimentalization. They are at cross-purposes.

Clearly, some mix of the two is necessary for organizations to survive and thrive, but they should not be confused as they often are today. And it needs to be understood that since planning is an extrapolation of the past and present towards the future, it works against change, even when change is necessary.


7 responses to “Strategic planning: an oxymoron?

  1. OK, then. Would "strategy-based planning" be a better name? While I agree that developing a strategy and creating a plan are two different activities, it still makes total sense to plan with a strategy in mind. In fact I’m not sure what else I’d want to base a plan on.I disagree with your characterizations of planning as involving "fixed assumptions" and discouraging creativity. Planning for risk mitigation, for example, is a highly creative operation: you have to imagine what might happen and devise responses that are flexible yet effective. In the same vein, planning — rather than working against change, as you said — tells you how to respond to change. Count me among the unconvinced.

  2. @larry_kunz Thanks for your comment and sorry it took me so long to respond: I was in China, and Posterous is currently blocked there, so I couldn’t actually see what was happening on the blog. The fixed assumptions include things like "objectives". You plan with the intent to achieve certain objectives, regardless of whether those objectives are still relevant by the end of the reporting cycle. It’s difficult for me to summarize a 400-page book in a short post, but basically the planning cycle takes on a life of its own where the planning often ends up driving so-called strategy, contrary to what organizations claim/believe. Just the annual planning cycle with budget deadlines contributes to this impetus. Strategy needs to be reactive and proactive to a constantly changing environment. It is crazy that there are "strategy moments" in the planning cycle, when this should really be a continuous process. And please don’t overlook the fact that I do convey Mintzberg’s caveat that both strategy and planning are necessary for organizational health, but they are processes that work against each other in a healthy tension.

  3. @larry_kunz Another point: according to Mintzberg, the emphasis should be on the strategy, not the planning. I haven’t finished the book yet, but so far it feels like what he is getting at is a learning, adapting organization rather than a planning organization.

  4. If we say that "planning" is by its nature rigid and controlling….Then, yes, it can act against the strategy. I don’t believe that planning has to be that way, although I readily concede that in too many organizations it is.Good planning can accommodate change, and it never loses sight of the strategy. "Objectives" ought to be couched in terms of the overall strategic direction, not in terms of "we will do this, this, and this." Perhaps this is an example of the "healthy tension" that you mentioned.

  5. @larry_kunz I think indeed that the nuance lies in whether planning means trying to foresee every little detail of implementation or preparedness. I’ll be writing more posts triggered by this book, because it’s quite thought-provoking.

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