Should the Strategic Plan Rest in Peace?

Should the Strategic Plan Rest in Peace?
At one time, business executives believed that strategic planning was the answer to all of their problems. The process that started in the 1950’s evolved through various strategic analyses including SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats), Michael Porter’s competitive strategy model, core competencies, strategic intent and business transformation. Today, many are questioning the strategic plan's usefulness.

There are many reasons for this. I'll give three:

  1. Involvement of Strategic Planning Consultants. Okay, I don’t want to tar every consultant with the same brush, but generally, consultants take a bunch of company time going through endless analysis. They have to. Think about it; their meters are ticking. When all is said and done, the company will have a polished, professional-looking document that the Board of Directors will love. But, seldom do these strategic plans drive a company into the future. Trust me, the process will be repeated the next year, and other than a change in date, you will have a tough time telling the two plans apart.
  2. Building the Plan From the Bottom Up. Isn’t top management supposed to be the strategic experts of the organization? Assuming that is the case, shouldn’t the plan be generated, top-down? “Oh no,” say strategic planning specialists. “If your employees aren’t involved in the process, you won’t have buy-in or satisfactory results.” Every CEO wants buy-in. Getting it is a case of the CEO sharing the plan with employees, communicating what should be done, why it should be done and how it will be done. If employees nod to that, the CEO has buy-in.
  3. Thick, Convoluted Strategic Documents. These are like company manuals on a book shelf collecting dust. Clarity, purpose, the what, why’s and how’s can be captured on one page. This requires hard work and deep strategic thought. Ever heard the saying, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time”?

The one-page strategic plan was introduced to me by my former employer, Jacobs Suchard (Toblerone, Milka, Nabob, Cote d’Or). For 15 years, I participated in the creation of the one-pager for Suchard. The process was excellent – several initiatives competing for a page of limited real estate, healthy debates on competitive advantage and timelines, cultural soul searching. In my consulting afterlife, I helped dozens of companies craft their own one-pagers. Every time I suggested the single page to a new client, the CEO would raise an eye. How could something so important to the future of their companies possibly fit on a page? They would say, "but my business is different and way too complex for that." But in the end, after much coaxing, they came on board. I remember the day I convinced the CEO of a $2 billion company with three divisions to opt for focus and clarity. In seven years, that business boasted another billion in sales.

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