THE STRATEGIC PLANNING PROCESS
What makes strategy fail
By Ruth Tearle
My experience of talking to senior managers is that many are quite cynical about the strategic planning process in their organization. Their usual comment is “Strategy is a waste of time. The agenda is just like last year where we achieved nothing. We got no real direction, and nothing we agreed was ever implemented afterwards.”
The usual company strategic planning process involves spending time at a remote retreat. Here delegates sit for two days in a conference room pretending to listen. Bombarded by a never ending stream of colleagues reviewing last year’s plans, and descriptions of next years goals, they control their boredom by either practicing their own presentation, or tweeting to friends, or leaving the room for ‘urgent’ matters.
Occasionally an external speaker is brought in, to present a new important trend to the group. But by then, everyone has totally switched off. At the end of two days of presentations or questions and answers, everyone pretends that ‘strategy has been done’ for the year. The CEO ticks off the 'strategic planning process' as a completed job. Someone is tasked with documenting the strategy – even though no strategy has actually been developed. People leave commenting about the food and the venue whilst the organisers are pleased that everything ran smoothly. And when “the strategy” fails to be implemented – it is only the CEO and head of strategy who wonders why.
The three great pretenders of strategic planning
The pretenders of strategy include:
- Pretend to be there. They may sit in the room, but their fingers and eyes are on their mobile phones, iPads or laptops. Their minds are far away.
- Pretend to listen. Whiles presenters are speaking, they are twittering to their friends, or chatting privately to one another.
- Pretend to ask a question. A delegate will ask a long winded question of the CEO or the presenter - not because he really wants an answer, but because he wants to look important or get noticed.
- Pretend to contribute to a strategy. A delegate will make a controversial statement. One that will launch a debate on an unrelated operational matter which has very little to do with a corporate or divisional strategy. What it does do, very effectively, is to draw the groups attention away from developing a new strategy.
- Pretend to act in the best interests of the organization while they cleverly sabotage the strategy process. The delegate will present a reason why strategy shouldn’t be developed at all during this retreat. They may highlight conflict in the leadership team. They may suggest that the strategy can’t be developed in the absence of key players, who are not present. They may want to debate the way the agenda was developed. They may even create an operational crisis, that needs the immediate attention of people in the group. Either way, they pretend to be acting in the best interests of the organization, whilst they carefully ensure that they distract the group attention away from developing a strategy.
- They pretend the retreat was successful. Having controlled the agenda and thereby prevented the development of any strategic plan, they congratulate the CEO or the facilitator on an excellent retreat.
A retreat: A period of time away from normal activities. Used to study quietly, meditate or to think carefully. Cambridge dictionary.
The leader who:
- Pretends that a venue makes a retreat. While the venue may be away from the office, the leader allows delegates to continue with normal activities such as staying connected to their friends and customers via their cell phones, iPads or laptops. This prevents them from thinking carefully, creatively or strategically.
- Pretends that the purpose of the retreat is allow the group to co-create a strategy. Sometimes the leader has already developed the strategy. He doesn’t really want to consider any new ideas. He is simply going through the motions of allowing his team to ‘believe that they have participated in creating their future.’
- Pretends that simply presenting a strategy to their teams is enough to excite and inspire them. Even though they know that it is almost impossible to get commitment without participation, they believe that all they have to do to get buy-in to their strategy, is to present their strategy followed by a ‘pretend question and answer session.’
The facilitator who:
If you always do, what you’ve always done, you will always get, what you always got. Author unknown.
- Pretends it is possible for a team to develop a vision of the future without considering how the future may be different from today. Many organizations have entire strategy retreats without ever discussing how shifting trends in political, economic, social, technological, market and competitor environments could change the rules for being successful in a future. Instead they have presentations detailing divisional progress on last year’s strategies.
- Pretends it is possible for a group of bored people to create a brilliant strategy which will excite and delight future customers. Creative people know that listening to speakers, having question and answer sessions and debates will prevent anyone from thinking creatively or strategically. Yet that is the typical format for many strategy retreats.
The end result of a pretend strategy retreat is a a sham. Time spent away where nothing gets achieved, anything gets documented, and employees throughout the organization complain about the lack of direction from their leaders. And yet in some report there is a tick on a checklist for 'completing the strategic planning process.
How do you know if your strategy retreat was a pretence or a success? It all depends on what your team has achieved by the end of the strategic retreat.
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We would like to hear about your experiences and viewpoints. By sharing your own experience, you can help make this topic richer, more practical and more relevant to different situations and cultures. This helps us all to learn.