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Is strategic planning dead?

Is strategic planning dead? As with everything, the answer depends on what the question means. So here goes…

IF strategic planning means amassing binders full of research and data and knowing the binder contains the answers, then yes, it is dead. It'd be cool to be able to predict the future but -- as far as I know -- nobody has done that. Predict, anticipate, listen, and adjust -- of course -- but predict with completely accuracy? That's funny!

IF you define strategic planning as an activity distinct and separate from daily operations and activities, then yes, I think that’s also dead. Strategic planning never has been exclusive of daily operations but is often treated as such. Let's go off-site, get away from the daily whirlwind, and think big and dream. Let's "pretend" that the day-to-day realities don't exist and create from scratch on a white canvas what's next for us. Sounds cool, but is it? Is it a good use of time and resources? Let's use a case study of The Zerbs Co. to explore.

My name is Dawn Zerbs. I am a 43-year-old female, married for almost 17 years, live in Leawood, KS, and started a business consulting firm almost one year ago. So, for a "strategic planning session" would I dream about my future and pretend none of these things existed? Sometimes it feels as though that is how off-sites are approached, so I tried it using my family as my “business”.

During The Zerbs Co. strategic planning off-site I came up with approximately 30 amazing ways to fuel our mission. Ideas included traveling the world to give keynote speeches on hope (stole this from Libby Gill), shifting my business to pro bono for all services, and moving to a ranch in Wyoming to connect with nature.

All ideas in strategic planning are "good", but are they practical? Do they take current state into consideration? Mine didn't. Traveling the world as a keynote speaker, for example, is good but how practical is it when you consider my capabilities in the area, capacity and interest in lots of travel, and any experience or credibility or reputation in the area. And serving clients for free? That'd be awesome, if only the mortgage and grocery bills didn't show up regularly. And moving to connect with nature? That’s cool. But it doesn’t align with The Zerbs Co. strategic direction.

The Zerbs Co. has chosen (strategy is about choice) to focus our work in the Midwest and keep headquarters in Leawood, Kansas. This choice eliminates the possibility of moving to a ranch in Wyoming. And limiting possibilities is a good thing! I may choose not to move to a ranch in Wyoming, but that doesn't mean I have to throw out my goal to connect with nature. The opportunity is the same regardless of the constraints, but constraints challenge us to be more creative on how to solve the problem or take advantage of the opportunity.  

The Zerbs Co. example is intentionally simplistic and silly. But is there anything here that reminds you of strategic planning conversations you’ve participated in? My favorite strategic planning take-away is the detailed list of initiatives prioritized with milestones and deadlines and accountability completed after a 4-hour session. The only problem is that nobody has time or the skills to do any of it. Omitting things to free up resources to invest in other areas is often missed.

IF strategic planning means being honest and up-to-date and asking direct and clear questions about your business market, model, and capabilities, it’s alive and well. Is your core competency now a candidate for outsourcing? What value are you adding? Are you holding on to a constraint that doesn’t exist anymore? Or are there constraints that you haven’t been brave enough to say out loud?

Nothing is permanent or forever. Strategic planning is a process that is ongoing and refreshed with daily experience and learning. It’s key to revisit constraints and decisions to ensure that they’re leading you in a direction that’s right for you and that they’re still relevant. And the same goes for the perceptions, opinions, and experiences of employees and customers. Never stop listening to those you serve.

A recent HBR piece captures this strategy-as-a-guide concept: “What is new is the idea that closing the gap between strategy and execution may not be about better execution after all, but rather about better learning — about more dialogue between strategy and operations, a greater flow of information from customers to executives, and more experiments. In today’s fast-paced world, strategy as learning must go hand in hand with execution as learning — bypassing the idea that either a strategy or the execution is flawed — to recognize that both are necessarily flawed and both are valuable sources of learning, improvement, and reinvention.”  Read the full article.

IF you define strategic planning as thinking about who you are, who you want to be, and how you are going to get there, then it’s alive and needed more today than ever. The gift of time and space away from the daily whirlwind to get together and reflect on current state and discuss possibilities for the future cannot be overestimated. Getting to clarity from the fast-moving complexity is not easy. And staying the course is even harder.

So, what do you think? Is strategic planning dead? I look forward to hearing from you.

Dawn ZerbsComment