If you Google “Strategic Planning”, you will find thousands of books, articles and resources on the subject. From Porter’s Five Forces to Schumpeter’s Gales of Destruction, from Blue Ocean Strategies to Edge Strategies and from agile organizations to continuous learning organizations, there are hundreds of tools and templates, thousands of how-to guides and mountains of advice on how to create and execute the perfect Strategic Plan. But strategic planning is not about the plan. It is about the impact of strategically thinking together. It is about intentionally evolving and growing in a way that is purposeful and directional. It involves thinking critically and collaborating inside and outside the organization. Because it is not just about what the organization does, it is about how the organization thinks.
“In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”General Dwight D. Eisenhower
K.E. Weick, in his book Sensemaking in Organisations, tells a story about a group of soldiers lost in the Alps after a snowstorm. They began to lose hope but then one person in the group found a piece of an old map in his coat.
They rallied, studying the map and coming up with ideas on how to make it to safety. They eventually made their way to shelter and were rescued, only to find out later that the map was of the Pyrenees Mountains. Like the piece of old map, the purpose of a strategy is not to lead you down a path. Rather, its intention is to unite people in a common purpose, ignite their spirit and belief in the possible, provide focus/direction and build momentum.
When clients ask me to facilitate their Strategic Planning, I always start by explaining my three golden rules:
- Positioning and competitive advantage are too static. A Strategic Plan should be a living document that continuously evolves.
- There is no place for scarcity thinking in Strategic Planning. What is required is an abundance mentality and a solution-focused approach.
- In order to foster an abundance mentality and maintain a living, breathing strategic plan, we must focus on the process. We need to not only change what the organization does; we need to change how the organization thinks.
The power of facilitation is that it enables and supports each of these golden rules. It provides the foundation and energy for organizations and communities to see past the boundaries of what is. It allows them to move to the land of what could be. And it helps them think together to create the means to get there. The following explores each of these golden rules in detail.
Golden Rule #1: Strategy is a living resource
“We live in a time of such dynamic change that there is never one future ahead of us but one unfolding every day.”Lawrence Philbrook
The future is not some point in time. The future is a continuum that begins now and has no defined ending. There are many possible futures; today does not need to be a limiting baseline.
Data-driven Strategic Planning often starts with analyses like the SWOT and the PESTLEi, are grounded in Porter’s Five Forcesii and focus on removing obstacles. This binds our thinking in current and past realities. Being opportunistic is responsive, being innovative is proactive. The power that facilitation brings to strategic thinking is that it opens the conversation to what is possible—beyond what is, to what could be. It fosters an awareness across the organization that opportunity resides in ambiguity.
Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book Big Magic, declares that we have moved from the knowledge revolution to the creativity and innovation revolutioniii.
“The drive for perfectionism is a corrosive wasteE. Gilbert
She goes on to say that “the drive for perfectionism is a corrosive waste of time.” Success stories like Alibaba support her claim. In his book Smart Business, Ming Zeng writes, “Strategy no longer means analysis and planning, but rather a process of real-time experimentation and customer engagement.”iv
He goes on to explain that “the familiar forces of competition are falling away and giving rise to new forms of cooperation between business and myriad other players. When strategy is no longer predicated on competition but centred on coordination, the ways of creating value are completely transformed”. Zeng recognized that being opportunistic is responsive, but being innovative is proactive.
Those in the Agile Movementv understand this to mean there are many ways to achieve a goal. The Agile Manifesto says it is best to choose a course of action, based on today’s thinking and information. You then need to continuously improve execution based on the information you gain as you move forward. This “good enough for now” mentality requires agility of thinking. It also requires agility of structure and processes to enable the organization to iterate into its best future. The organization must understand how to think and act in an agile manner. It must analyse its culture and structures to ensure there are no corporate antibodies that kill risk-taking, creativity and innovation.
“Being opportunistic is responsive, being
innovative is proactive.”
Facilitating strategic thinking in a way that makes this possible across the organization is critical. We need to bring together people from both inside and outside the organization. We need to include those who serve and those who are served. And we need to provide the tools and processes for everyone to think together effectively. This is what facilitative Strategic Planning does. It helps organizations think better together.
Golden Rule #2: Abundance meets focus
The mind-set of competitive advantage, differentiating between quality and cost, working harder, doing more and brand distinction are all grounded in what is, rather than what could be. The abundance mindset utilizes pull logic, not just push logic, and focuses on discovery-driven thinking. Facilitating strategic thinking that relaxes assumptions and releases creativity allows for consideration of the possible. This can be profound and transformative.
“Approaching every strategic planning conversation with a solution focus allows us to balance the need for radical openness to the possible with a grounding in reality.”
Facilitators do this by asking original questions about what the organization does and what its customers want. This allows conversations to move from problem-solving to innovation, from being based in past experiences to being future-focused. It can be the difference between creating a strategy that is the cornerstone of the organization rather than the capstone of the organization.
Solution-focused thinking is not just about identifying what works and doing more of it. It is about identifying what works and leveraging it to improve everything. Approaching every Strategic Planning conversation with a solution focus allows us to balance the need for radical openness to the possible with a solid grounding in reality. Strategic Planning is about agreeing on a common purpose and goal and moving forward together to achieve them. It is about creating and maintaining a can-do attitude and supporting a bias towards action.
Golden Rule #3: Change what we do, change how we think
Many wisdom traditions say it is not about the destination, it is the journey that matters. This is especially true in Strategic Planning. We have all heard of, or experienced, situations where companies hire consultants to develop a Strategic Plan for them. Research is done, interviews are conducted, meetings are held. This all results in a beautiful glossy plan that includes the latest management theories and industry best practices. Money changes hands, announcements are made, often with much fanfare, and copies of the plan are distributed to managers, staff and shareholders. The plan sits on people’s desks for a few weeks. Then it migrates to the bookshelf. Soon it is forgotten in the myopia of core business perfectionism and the hustle of day-to-day realities.
Focusing on the why, helps get past the but.
Sadly, this version of Strategic Planning, or a similar-type process, still happens in organizations today. It doesn’t matter if it is a consultancy, a senior management work group or a board retreat. When a small group of people develop a plan for the organization, they are telling “the rest” what path to take. This is destination-focused and not journey-focused. If there are multiple futures available to us, choosing just one future is limiting. Especially since choosing that one future is usually based on current realities and static archival data.vi vii
For true strategic thinking to happen in organizations, the focus needs to be on how the Strategic Plan is developed, not on the plan itself. What process, or processes, will be used to tap into the collective wisdom of the organization? How should we access the system in which the organization lives? Who needs to be part of the conversation?
When do they need to be engaged? How should the collaboration be facilitated? These are critical questions that must be thoughtfully examined and considered.
The goal is to design a process where the Strategic Plan becomes organically embedded in the organization at the cellular level. Because, at the end of the Strategic Planning process, rather than reading the plan, you want staff to be part of the plan. Rather than hearing the plan, you want them to understand the plan. And, most importantly, rather than receiving the plan, you want them to be cheering the plan.
After explaining my three golden rules to clients I usually get some version of the statement, “That all sounds great but…
- we want to have the new plan in place in three months, so we don’t have time to do all that engagement stuff ;”
- we don’t want to get caught up in a long navel-gazing exercise;”
- our workforce is much too busy to be involved at that level;”
- people are far too cynical to be interested in Strategic Planning;”
- our staff and customers don’t understand the complexities to make informed recommendations;”
- we already know where we want to go over the next few years, we just want to confirm that and solidify the road map;”
Do any of these sound familiar? Trust me, I have heard all of them and more. It all comes back to the original question: why are you using organisational energy and resources to do Strategic Planning? What is your expected return on investment? When I ask the clients the why, it helps us get past the but.
The chart below shows some real-life examples of conversations I have had with clients around the why. It usually takes a few layers of why questions to get to the root of the problem or issue they are trying to address. It provides some actual client root problems/ issues. It explains what they were really trying to achieve through their Strategic Planning process. It also describes my response regarding how using a facilitative Strategic Planning process can help them achieve their goals.
Here are some of the reasons clients have given when I asked them why they are doing Strategic Planning and my responses.
Three examples from the field
Three real-life examples are offered below. Each of the examples began with a client asking me to help them develop or renew their strategy. Each had unique aspects that needed to be considered and built into the process. Although each client had vastly different needs and goals, they all followed the three golden rules. The first example is a large multinational healthcare corporation. The second is a rural not-for-profit community service agency. The third is a pan-national advocacy organization. In each case, a process was designed to create the most impact for that organization. The resulting plans became the rallying cry that united and focused the organizations and stakeholders to achieve great things.
Example #1: Changing Clinical Approaches in Healthcare
A team from a multinational healthcare corporation contacted me. They asked for my help to develop a strategy to change the way clinicians dealt with a specific subset of patients. I met with the team and asked them a series of questions about why they wanted clinicians to change. After a series of why questions, we finally got to the root issue. They realized the impact they wanted to achieve was not actually a change in clinical practices; that was simply a means to an end. What they really wanted to do was increase the quality of life of patients. With that goal in mind, we got down to the work of developing a process. Our focus was to engage clinicians, patients, academics, marketers and administrators in the dialogue. We needed them involved to make this change happen.
The process involved people from 30 countries. All of them had an impact on the patient journey. We also included patients themselves. The engagement incorporated online surveys, virtual and face-to-face conversations. Research and analysis were shared. Ideas were raised, considered, adapted and prioritised. Everything was documented along the way in easily consumable pieces, then shared extensively. The final product was not only a clear strategy, but also an implementation plan that included commitments from within and outside the organization.
All measurements of success were achieved. The team reported that implementation was faster and smoother than for any other strategy they had developed in the past two decades. They were happy with both the process and the outcome. The client lead said that everyone inside and outside the organization supported the plan because they had all had a hand in its development. She went on to explain that the most important indicator of success was the ease and speed of implementation and adoption across the 30 countries. Because people were already on board, they were able to skip the usual sales and education stage. When the plan was finished, and head office distributed the materials, people’s responses were, ‘Thanks but we are already way ahead of you and have started implementation.’
The company later reported that past strategies had taken a decade or more to reach implementation levels, which significantly impacted patient care. For this project, they saw results in less than 12 months. That is the power of facilitative Strategic Planning!
Example #2: Creating a Community of Cheerleaders
An Executive Director for a large rural not-for-profit social service agency approached me. She had been in the job for two years. Yet she still found it hard to know what direction to take the organization. The Board had a Strategic Plan developed by an outside consultant seven years ago. However, not many of the goals in the plan had been achieved. This made the Board reluctant to spend money on Strategic Planning again. They also did not want to divert funds from client services.
The Executive Director asked me to present my ideas to the Board. After a quick Google search, it was clear that this organization did a lot of great work. If it closed its doors, the quality of life of the residents across its 5,000+ sq km catchment area would decrease significantly. The agency provided high-chair-to-wheelchair social services. Its services were well utilized. However, it relied exclusively on grants, donations and volunteer support to survive.
At the beginning of the Board meeting, I asked each Board member to introduce themselves. As part of the introduction, I asked them to tell an inspirational story about the services the agency provides. Each Board member became animated as they talked about how the agency had positively touched lives within the community. After the introductions were over, I asked them to think about how they felt now compared to how they felt when they walked into the room. They agreed they felt more positive, inspired and energized. They immediately saw the benefit of engaging staff, volunteers, funders, donor and the community in a similar exercise. Together, we created a Strategic Planning process with the main goal of ensuring that everyone involved felt like the Board did at that moment—inspired, positive and energized.
Storytelling was used throughout the engagement process. Stories of community, of resiliency, of inspiration and hope were shared and documented. Volunteers talked about the value they received from their interactions with clients. Families talked about the support and assistance they had received and the difference it made in their lives. At each session, participants talked with enthusiasm about how to do more to expand community well-being. People brainstormed about what to do and how to do it. Our process encouraged everyone to use “I will”, “we can” and “they should” statements, ensuring that discussions did not revert to “someone should” but focused on “we will”.
The result was an inspirational plan with an entire community of enthusiastic “doers” lined up to make things happen. The organization is now thriving with new volunteers. They have an expanded donor pool. And they have experienced a growth in programs and services. This is also the power of facilitative Strategic Planning.
Example #3: Rethinking the Future
I was recently approached by a national conglomerate of advocacy agencies. They had combined forces to amplify their collective voice, with the hope of putting their issues on the national agenda. Yet, they were frustrated with their lack of impact and were wondering if it was worth the effort of keeping the organization together. They wanted to engage in a strategic discussion about their future. There were several layers of questions that needed to be answered before the organization could determine if they had a future together. Only then could they consider what that future could look like.
The depth of the existential issues involved had paralysed the organisational leadership. To get them unstuck and facilitate the types of authentic conversations needed to move them to a decision, we created a process that brought in more voices. The facilitated sessions were designed to help participants critically think about the needs and wishes of their home organisations. We then balanced that with the collective needs of all the organisations. After a series of difficult but enlightening sessions, the group decided to keep its mandate. They also decided to change their structure and the way they worked together.
A renewed sense of optimism and focus breathed life into the group. It also recalibrated their commitment and expectations. The Board was pleased with the results and is looking forward to seeing the impact of its collective advocacy across the country. Uniting an organisation’s sense of purpose and focus is also the power of facilitation.
The examples and ideas in this chapter focus on the process of Strategic Planning. And that process really is all about the journey, not the destination. Facilitative Strategic Planning is all about the process of developing the plan, rather than the plan itself. In the examples described in this chapter, the actual writing of the Strategic Plan was merely a formality.
Creating a living, breathing strategic plan, allows organizations to continuously evolve and grow. Using a solution-focused approach, and abundance mentality, creates a sense of optimism and engagement. Excitement about future possibilities is created both inside and outside the organization.
A facilitative Strategic Planning process doesn’t just change what the organization does. It changes how the organization thinks. The power of facilitation enables this by creating the space, time and structures for authentic, open and creative conversations.
As Jack Ma is often quoted saying, “Hold on to your idealism and ambitions and don’t get complacent … today is hard, tomorrow [may] be worse, but the day after tomorrow will be beautiful.”
i. SWOT (Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities and Threats) and PESTLE (Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal, Environmental)
ii. Porter, M.E. (March–April 1979). How Competitive Forces Shape Strategy. Harvard Business Review 57(2), 137-145
iii. Zeng, M. (2018). Smart Business: What Alibaba’s Success Reveals about the Future of Strategy. Harvard Business Review Press
iv. Highsmithh et al. (2001). Manifesto for Agile Software Development. The Agile Manifesto. https://agilemanifesto.org/
v. Mehta, R. (2018, June 12). Moving from ‘Can I do it?” to “Yes, I can do it” in a small, poor aging village. Medium. https://medium.com/winds-and-waves/moving-from-can-i-do-it-to-yes-i-can-do-it-in- a-small-poor-aging-village-da90922d0568
vi. For further examples and information on the concepts of thinking about multiple futures see Martin Gilbraith’s Blog http://martingilbraith.com/2013/06/12/two-books-and-three-methods-for-facilitating-social-transformation/