Five Myths about Strategic Planning

Over the course of my consulting career, I’ve written dozens of strategic plans for organizations of different sizes and types. Among the things I’ve learned is that most successful leaders are quite good at thinking strategically, be it for their team, department, unit or organization. They know what they want their organization to accomplish and what it will do to deliver, and they use that knowledge to guide their daily decisions and actions. However, when faced with the prospect of developing a formal strategic plan, they don’t always make the connection to this work of setting a direction and guiding action. Instead, they get trapped by what I’ve come to see as myths about strategic planning.

Myth #1: Strategic planning is the work of consultants and strategy experts

A strategic plan is, at its most basic, the answer to two questions: “What is success?” and “How will we get there?” Most successful leaders think about these questions frequently and can articulate their answers clearly. Yet, when confronted with the need to develop and document a formal strategic plan, many turn to consultants or specialized strategy functions to oversee that work. While there certainly are specialized skills that these experts can bring to bear to support plan development (often having to do with accessing or synthesizing information, engaging stakeholders or managing a complex planning process), these skills primarily serve a support role to the core leadership work of defining success and determining how to get there. When leaders stop thinking that they can and must do that work themselves, and instead defer to other experts, the resulting plan is unlikely to be successful. I’ve seen too many leaders agree to a plan drafted by others, without having a clear understanding of what it really entails, or without a deep commitment to what it describes. Sadly, these leaders rarely follow up with the hard or consistent decisions required for successful execution, and the mismatch between the leader’s actions and the content of the plan creates unnecessary tension and confusion in the organization.

Myth #2: There is ONE BEST WAY to develop strategy

It’s popular in consulting circles to develop and promote “offerings.” These are tried and true methodologies to address a common organizational challenge, often branded with an authoritative sounding name. The idea is that the client doesn’t have to spend a lot of time thinking about what to do, and instead just buys a package of services. With a few exceptions, most of the strategic planning offerings I’ve seen are actually OK. They will get an organization to a good enough strategy. What they don’t always do is use your (and their) people resources efficiently to focus your time and attention on the issues that matter most to you. Instead, they tend to involve extensive data collection and analyses on a wide variety of topics, including a few where you might already have an effective strategy, and they can miss opportunities to use the planning process to engage stakeholders or address other organizational issues.

A better approach is for the leadership team to take a critical look at its current strategy. Do members agree on what success looks like? Will the path the organization is currently on get them there, and if not, why not? Leaders can then engage their planning experts/consultants to design a planning process where the lion’s share of attention is focused on the issues that need it. An organization facing an urgent existential crisis because of a sea change in the environment has a different kind of planning challenge than one that is expanding rapidly or one in which key leaders hold competing visions for the organization.

Myth #3: You NEED to do IT every 3-5 of years

The underlying premise behind this myth is that things change quickly, and that from time to time, it’s wise to step back and revisit the strategy. While this premise isn’t wrong, the follow-on assumption that you have to take on a full strategic planning process in accordance with a set calendar is fraught with risks. On the one hand, only looking at the strategy every 3-5 years risks missing signals about potentially important environmental or organizational changes that may need to be addressed more urgently. Many leadership teams routinely engage in scanning activities to flag shifts or trends that may require a change in strategy, and much has been written about the hows and whys of agility. On the other hand, some strategies involve long-term commitments, and starting from scratch with your planning every few years can be inefficient. In these organizations, it can be helpful to periodically reassess the assumptions underlying the strategy to ensure that it is still valid and that continuing with prior commitments still makes sense.

Beyond significant environmental and organizational shifts, the most common trigger event for planning is a leadership transition. Planning ahead of a leadership change can identify critical capabilities the new leader may need to have, and can be particularly important if the organization needs the new leader to take it in a new direction. Planning following a leadership change gives the new leader a chance to ensure alignment with the Board and other members of the leadership team on priorities and direction.

Myth #4: A strategic plan has to have a mission, vision, values, goals and strategies (MVVGS)

The MVVGS approach to planning is widely used, particularly in the not-for-profit and professional services arena, and it has many advantages. Most significantly, it ensures helpful discipline as leaders reflect on the different ways to characterize success.

That said, the actual strategy of an organization (as opposed to the stated strategy) is the result of myriad decisions made by employees and other stakeholders as they go about their daily work. A truly effective strategic plan is one that provides meaningful guidance to those people so that their actions result in the strategy you intend. To do that, it must be relatable, memorable and clear. While employees may remember your mission and vision, bulleted lists of goals and strategies, particularly if the list is long, tend not to be compelling. For this reason, organizations have long experimented with different ways to express and convey their strategy. Many turn bulleted lists into diagrams or other images to convey them more effectively. They may also prepare videos or even podcasts. Some develop catch phrases or stories to describe critical aspects of their strategy. I encourage each organization to think about who needs to know what the plan is, and how to make it most compelling to them. Sometimes that may mean you depart from the mission, vision, values, goals and strategies framework.

Myth #5: If it’s not explicitly mentioned in the plan, it’s unimportant

Sometime, less is more. I’ve worked with a number of organizations that have made good progress on articulating a plan but then gotten stuck because the plan doesn’t explicitly address every function or area of performance. This can be a particular challenge for organizations that want to emphasize the opportunities associated with one part of their business while maintaining and/or even streamlining another. For example, a medical center may determine that a significant expansion in its cancer facilities and services is desirable, and that it will not make similar investments in other types of services, not because they aren’t important, but because, strategically it makes sense to maintain their current scope for now. The urge to say something about everything the organization does can bury the major message leaders want and need to convey in a welter of details. Finding a way to acknowledge what matters, provide clarity and inspire and engage your team members is one of the hardest things about developing strategy.

One way organizations address this challenge is to choose a goal that applies to multiple teams and units. An organization focused on growing or transforming one service (business, unit, facility, function, product, etc.) while maintaining others, may craft a goal or vision that broadly describes what it wants the “maintained” services to do, for example, “Deliver consistent, high-quality care across our region.” Senior leaders can then focus on ensuring leaders up and down the management hierarchy translate the organizational strategy into appropriate guidance for their teams. If a plan gives those leaders a sense of what is important, they can and should fill in the details for their teams, so that the organizational goal gets translated into specific, locally relevant targets. A strategic plan at the institutional level doesn’t need to carry all that detail, but it frames the way those local leaders set meaningful local goals and priorities.