A simplified model of strategic planning places strategists at the top, largely isolated from daily operations, and fed on a stream of largely quantitative data that is increasingly aggregated as it moves up the pyramid. Occasionally, these strategists will leave their ivory towers and do some “Management by Wandering Around”, but otherwise they are supposed to stay away from the operations, lest the daily grind should divert their attention from the loftier occupation of being strategic. There are many challenges to this model, as revealed by a growing number of business trends.
- The model of strategic planning that reserves lofty thinking for a handful of strategists reduces most of the workforce to drones and is highly disengaging and demotivating. One of the major tenets of the employee engagement movement is to enable and empower employees throughout the organization. The Japanese kaizen philosophy of continuous improvement is thus antithetical to strategic planning.
- Because of the aggregation and selection of data fed to isolated strategists, their chances of overlooking important strategic considerations is increased. This is exacerbated by the fact that data aggregation and selection tend to favor quantitative data. Quantitative data are good at answering questions about “what” and “how much” but are poor at explaining “why” and “how”. Truly outstanding strategists are able to immerse themselves in their field and extract the strategic messages hidden among the noise. One (often subconscious) technique for doing this is called thin-slicing, an ability to identify patterns on the basis of limited, but crucial data. (This phenomenon was explored at length in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.)
- It is artificial and possibly impossible to know in advance what elements will prove to be truly strategic and which will be tactical. Actions that seem trivial at the outset may end up radically changing the trajectory of the company in the long-term. Mintzberg cites the battle of Passchendaele as an extreme example: the strategists calling the shots dismissed the weather as a tactical detail, whereas the soldiers on the ground were all too aware that the rain had literally transformed the landscape and made the strategy that they were obliged to implement impracticable. Some 250,000 men lost their lives as a result.
- The traditional strategic planning model goes hand-in-glove with the concept of the top-down control-and-command organization. It’s a very mechanistic model of human organizations, and it can be questioned whether the model was ever accurate. (Some researchers today posit that Frederick Taylor, father of the mechanistic model of organization, suffered from acute anxiety and had an obsessive compulsion to create routines in order to cope, but that is another story…) Regardless of its past validity, the fortress of the top-down, impermeable organization is increasingly under assault in today’s age of scrutiny, transparence and social media, which allow almost anyone to comment on and interact with any number of layers within a company, and for those commentaries to be relayed around the globe in the blink of an eye. Furthermore, the combination of mobile communication devices and social media means that it is virtually impossible to maintain a corporate gag order. If insiders are not engaged and aligned enough to avoid “talking out of school” out of loyalty toward the organization, there is little that can be done to keep them from expressing divergent views (notwithstanding a posteriori sanctions for illegal or unethical revelations or similar violations of corporate policy).
None of this means that companies should abandon strategy or that they should allow chaos to reign. Rather, we need to differentiate between strategic thinking, strategic planning and strategic action. We also need to differentiate between planning and preparedness. Planning is about predetermination whereas preparedness is about training, enabling and empowering. The key is not just develop the capacities for performance but to ensure that the team knows about and supports (ideally because they are involved in its development) the strategy so that those enhanced abilities are put to good use.
This is part of a series of articles inspired by my reading of Henry Mintzberg’s 1994 work The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning: Reconceiving the Roles for Planning, Plans, Planners.