• Marisa Guerin

Strategic Planning -- in Turbulent Environments

Updated: Apr 12, 2018



Marisa Guerin PhD -- February 7, 2018

Over time, strategic planning methods have diversified to take account of more turbulent environments. Most large corporate business entities have long since abandoned classical strategic planning in favor of rolling planning cycles and evergreen documents. However, the received wisdom in the nonprofit, small business, and government sectors still insists on the importance of an organization being able to produce a strategic plan that clearly lays out its purpose and path to the future.


It’s a given that all organizations ought to have an intentional plan to reach their goals; but whether that results from classical strategic planning or from more emergent and dynamic methods depends on how uncertain the environment is, how stakeholders relate to it, and how new or how large the organization might be.


In classical planning processes that work in relatively stable contexts, the strategy is the long view, essential and simplified, from a perspective that takes in the whole enterprise and an environment that can be surveyed with reasonable accuracy. It is like the main path that can be chosen if you are looking down over a valley from the mountainside and wish to cross to the hills on the other side. However, there are ever fewer business or nonprofit organizations that can claim such a relatively stable context!


Today, many businesses, government entities, healthcare systems and nonprofit agencies operate in environments that are too turbulent for effective use of classical strategic planning methods. For these complex situations, the planning challenge is more like how to sail a boat that must cross a river to a destination on the other side, without being able to predict with certainty the weather or river conditions.


In other words, there has to be sufficient initial planning to launch well, but there must also be a dynamic capacity to respond to the changes in winds and currents which will be encountered but cannot be known in advance. This reality argues for a planning process that involves repeated cycles of long range vision, current assessment, initial action, retrospective review, adjustment, and further action. It is at once visionary, and incremental; neither abdicating the responsibility to set direction, nor over-engineering plans that have to remain contingent. It usually requires not just technical analytical expertise, but also the participation of larger numbers of stakeholders able to offer wider perspectives.


For any organization, the decision to undertake strategic planning must be thought through and the methodology chosen based on how well it corresponds to these realities. Many aspects of classical planning may well be relevant, such as a carefully-done SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats). But truly complex and potentially conflicted environments may call for additional planning based on methodologies such as Future Search, Theory U, World Cafe, Backcasting, Design Theory, and other approaches that engage stakeholders, issues, and future options in creative ways.


So be thoughtful about how to proceed. Examples of questions to ask might include:

  • What's driving the need for a strategic plan?

  • Will the process be fast enough and fluid enough to be actually helpful?

  • Is the initial scanning method capable of taking in the full range of actual and latent competitive pressures?

  • Can planners envision a range of potential future scenarios, with contingencies for each?

  • How engaged should key stakeholders be in the planning process and how committed to the product?

  • Will the product of the planning have flexibility, capable of “evergreen” adjustment as conditions change?

The take-away point in this brief post is that in strategic planning, methodology is not king and there isn't only one way to do it "right" – it’s a choice among options that makes the most sense.


If funders or external partners require a document that looks like a classical strategic plan, by all means produce one for them…even the most unorthodox planning process can be retrospectively documented in the analytic categories that help others to understand the intended path!