Strategic Planning Doesn’t Work
(and How to Create Plans That Do)
Jim Murphy and Bryan Feller
planning in most companies goes something like this: Take your best
people, pull them out of the office for two days and develop a
document that is as useful as the
Spruce Goose – the plane that flew only 1000 feet then grounded
After the Spruce Goose fiasco, the engineers found the experience
instructive – in what not to do on future projects.
In the same vein, it’s useful to consider where companies go
wrong in the strategic planning process and how to avoid those
Strategic plans are made with the wrong people: Most strategic planning is done with the
company’s best and brightest. Unfortunately
these people are often out of touch with front-line. The result? – a
plan filled with hidden flaws that will only surface during execution.
How to include all the right people: In
48 hours, the Department of Defense planned Operation Desert Storm. A
representative from every support asset in the military – over 200
people in all - assembled in the basement of the Pentagon. At the end
of two days, this group had the strategies that would win the war in
This is called Open Planning – and it almost
always includes planners from across the organization, three levels
deep in the chain of command. It’s a highly structured process where
the right people, using the right process can develop powerful
strategic plans that everyone buys in to and can execute.
Strategic plans are inflexible:
strategic plans assume the future is certain. This is a deadly
misconception. As time increases uncertainty increases.
How to be
ready for constant change: Strategic plans MUST have contingency
plans and feedback systems. Strategy
is actually like a flight plan. There is a clear starting point and a
desired destination, and there are checkpoints along the way. Without
course corrections at predetermined checkpoints, small deviations from
the flight plan could put you thousands of miles off course. While our
destination does not change, the path we take to get there must remain
Strategic plans are based on weak assumptions:
People will often debate over forecasts, but
rarely debate the assumptions the forecasts are based on.
Assumptions are created by the limited data we have available
about the past, combined with the experience and creativity of the
planning team. Because of this, most assumptions are neither right nor
wrong, merely “Weak” or “Strong”.
How to manage assumptions: Start by
listing all of the key assumptions of your strategic plan. Rank the
strength of each one AND estimate how much of the plan is riding on
each. Look for the highest risks and develop real-world experiments
that can prove or disprove the key assumptions. Plan contingencies
that you can implement if course corrections are needed.
Review your strategic plan AND its key assumptions quarterly.
Strategic planners repeat yesterday’s mistakes:
are frequently out of touch with the “real issues on the ground”.
Many planners never even know the root causes responsible for the
success or failure of previous plans. Was it communication? Was it
lack of resources? Was it our assumptions?
to learn from history:
One way to avoid repeating mistakes is to practice the nameless/rankless
debrief at least every quarter. Get the right people together and
identify the root causes of the strategic plan’s success or failure
and capture these lessons.
5. Strategic plans are not
linked to execution:
strategy to work there has to be an unbroken linkage between strategy,
campaigns, and tactics. The people getting things done have to be able
to own and carry out their part parts of the strategy – from the top
all the way down to the front line.
to inspire the front line with the big picture: First, the plan
must be communicated over and over again, up and down the ranks, for
it to have a chance at survival. Second, the strategy should support a
clear Future Picture – a high resolution image of the future that
guides decision-making at every level. This helps people take
initiative that is in line with the strategy. Third, managers must be
held accountable for the intent of the plan in their performance
reviews and compensation. Fourth, front-line accountabilities of the
plan must be clear, measurable and have single points of
Strategic plans need to be destroyed:
Big plans and big egos are a recipe for
disaster. No matter how great you think
your plan is – don’t believe your own press. Don’t fall in
love with your plan, leave that to your customers.
Develop your own “Red Team”: The
planners of Desert Storm handed their war plans over to a team that
was set up specifically to take it apart and defeat it – a “Red
Team”. They didn’t defeat it, but they found weaknesses that were
fixed in the planning room, not on the battlefield. You need to do the
same. Keep the yes men out of this discussion and take your pride off
the table and let the Red Team do their job.
Planners ignore resource-allocation issues:
Resource allocation happens as an
afterthought. Without a clear understanding of limitations, leaders
believe tradeoffs are unnecessary. Tradeoffs are difficult but
absolutely critical. The
alternative is the complete loss of what makes your company unique and
strategic plans that are floating in the clouds.
How to incorporate reality into the plan:
Start early in the planning cycle to clarify the necessary
tradeoffs. What assets do you have to work with? Who are the people on
the team that can make this work? How much time do you have?
Effective analysis of the answers will lead to creative
solutions—and a plan that has a good chance of succeeding.
Final Thought: According to John Boyd, one of the greatest
fighter pilots of modern times, the purpose of strategy is, “to
improve our ability to shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances, so
that we (as individuals or as groups or as a culture or as a
nation-state) can survive on our own terms.”
Rather than being subject to unpredictable and rapid change,
the company calls the shots: it establishes where it wants to go and
enlists all the knowledge and talents of its people in getting there.
Read other articles and learn more about
Jim “Murph” Murphy
and Bryan Feller.
[This article is available at no-cost, on a non-exclusive basis.
Contact PR/PR at 407-299-6128 for details and