November 7, 2019; Marisa Guerin, PhD
(*Abridged version of a longer article titled “More Than Meets the Eye”)
Be alert and pay close attention when you hear the words “We need a strategic plan.” They should signal you to listen with a generous amount of critical curiosity!
This post reminds us that the work of strategic planning often carries the weight of unspoken concerns about the organization or the leadership. There can be more to the initial statement “We need a strategic plan” than meets the eye.
Usually, that short statement conjures up the image of a realistic, data-based, disciplined planning process. And of course, that may be exactly what is needed. When it is used appropriately, strategic planning is a very useful activity that enables an organization to match its operations and structures to the demands of a specific strategy for success in a given environment.
But can the project of strategic planning disguise other motives? Yes!
Why is that? Because strategic planning is one of several business activities that can be coöpted as defensive rituals to protect organizations from the experience of risky vulnerability. The vulnerability might stem from the limitations of the leaders, or it could be part and parcel of the inherent challenge of the work.
So which will it be? Depending upon how the organization uses the process, a strategic plan can turn out in one of two ways: it can provide a realistic hedge against risky vulnerability, or it can represent a devoutly wished-for magical remedy, infused with larger-than-life hopes, a busy distraction from the real issues that need attention.
It might help to have some concrete notion of what the risks feel like to those who are casting about for a life-vest. Here are some of the unspoken “subtexts” that I have discerned over the years when I asked Board members or executives what might be driving their perceived need for a strategic plan:
“…It’s getting to be past time for a change of leadership. The leader of our organization is the original founder and is still doing things in a way that worked 20 years ago. The world and the organization are changing but the leader isn’t. A strategic planning process will give us a way to direct the priorities and actions and resources of the organization in spite of the leader’s reluctance…”
Needless to say, this doesn’t work very well. The struggle for control of direction that is brewing will just be played out on the field of planning instead of other issues. The planning process can indeed call the questions that must be answered, but the plan itself cannot function as a substitute for facing issues of confidence in leadership.
“…Important stakeholders are in conflict about the direction of the organization. The people who have influence on the organization – owners, or the Board, or those who provide it with money, or those who sponsor it – are dug-in on opposite sides of what is to be done. A strategic planning process will resolve the differences without us having to deal with the conflicts…”
In a situation like this one, the strategic planning process and the resulting plan can reflect, but they cannot drive, the agreements of the stakeholders. Careful attention must be paid to where the decision-making authority actually lies. Resolution of genuine differences will require skillful facilitation -- if they are possible at all.
“…We don’t trust the competence or the good judgment of our leadership in these particular matters. Decisions are being made here that seem alarmingly risky and for which there is little evidence of dependable consideration of consequences and alternatives. We need to be engaged in a thoughtful discussion of options and analysis of good choices…”
This message emerges when it is observed that leaders have started tackling very consequential issues with long term ramifications that others will have to live with. In such situations, the hope is that a process of disciplined planning can increase the confidence of all parties that the important implications of current decisions will have been explored. Outside experts may be a useful complement to the process in this situation, if they lend genuine expertise and credibility.
“…Hope isn’t the same thing as a good plan. Everyone seems carried away by our success so far and is bringing an enthusiastic but unrealistic energy to our plans for future growth. We need to slow down and think through what might happen and what else we could be doing...”
This kind of view from a Board member or leadership individual is an attempt to shake up the status quo, advising a process to air “devil’s advocate” thinking and other alternatives to the pell-mell momentum. In this case, strategic planning might be called for as a corrective for overly-optimistic thinking. A similar comment arises if the problem is complacency.
“…We’re stuck and our leaders are stuck too. Our membership is deeply divided, fragmented even. No one really wants to follow the leaders they elect, and the leaders aren’t too sure what direction to go in either. We need a strategic plan...”
One wonders if a group that is in stasis might not have reasons to be there. The unfreezing and movement together that they may desire will certainly not come from something so left-brain as strategic planning. A better prior activity would be a probing effort to know why the group is stuck and understanding the implications of that paralysis.
Learn to listen with attention to the worries or hopes that are accompanying the notion of preparing a strategic plan.
As you discern what is beneath the initiative, you will have a better idea if strategic planning has any hope of contributing a positive result…..or if it will instead be used as a defensive ritual, a busy and flashy project that is invested with hope but that actually takes the organization away from the sensitive issues that need tending, or confrontation, or management.