Why Strategic Planning Doesn’t Work
(and How to Create Plans That Do) 

By Jim Murphy and Bryan Feller

Strategic 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 forever. 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 pitfalls.

1. 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 100 days.

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.

2. Strategic plans are inflexible: Most 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 flexible.

3. 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.

4. Strategic planners repeat yesterday’s mistakes: Planners 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?

How 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: For 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.

How 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 accountability.

6. 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.

7. 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.

A 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.

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