There is something comforting about a strategic plan. You do some really good, strategic thinking and then translate it into a series of goals and action steps to get you there. Even though the world seems like a swirling, giant hairball of complexity, your strategic plan can make you feel like you know exactly what you need to do to be successful. Feels good, doesn’t it?
Too bad it’s a big lie.
The world doesn’t seem like a giant hairball of complexity — the world is a giant hairball of complexity. And you don’t operate in a linear environment, where step A will always lead to step B and then step C. You operate in a dynamic system that changes constantly, so what worked yesterday might not work today. Strategy is still important, and the act of simplifying is also important, but a three-year strategic plan binder … not so much.
What’s the alternative? Instead of strategic planning, you need to develop your system’s overall strategic capacity. You need to give all the people in your organization the ability to understand what drives the success of the enterprise. Years ago, I teamed up with my friend and colleague, Jeff De Cagna, to help an organization develop a list of strategic principles that would guide its decision making. They worked hard to not only identify a set of five or six clear principles, but they prioritized them. This was key.
For example, everyone knew in this organization that having their work based in sound science was critical — it was an important distinguishing characteristic. But in the prioritizing process, they also got clear that having an impact on the business operating environment of their member companies was primary. They’d never use “junk” science, but they also weren’t pursuing science for science’s sake. If that were the case, then science would have been the top priority. They realized that if a project or priority wasn’t impacting the operating environment of members, it would need to take a back seat.
Shortly after getting that clarity, they hit a huge PR crisis, and were able to jump on it immediately. They got their members to kick in new money for the effort —nearly doubling their annual budget. The strategic clarity they had achieved enabled both staff and members to move quickly when action was required. That’s strategic capacity in action.
So don’t be fooled by the over-simplification of a strategic plan. Invest in deeper strategic capacity throughout your whole organization and you’ll be better prepared to deal with whatever the swirling, giant hairball of reality throws your way.