Strategic Plans: $100,000 Coffee Coasters?

Last May, I wrote a post entitled “Save a Tree, Stop Strategic Planning.” My sarcastic post generated more interest than I ever thought it would. I thought I might generate hate mail, or at least have a bunch of people disagree with me, except most people actually agreed with me. Now, 10 months later, I was pondering this week if my views have changed.


I still think they are boring and borderline useless. I still think consultants make too much money off of organizations’ planning efforts (it’s only okay if you hire me as your consultant). I still think they might do more to stifle creativity than inspire it. I still think those plans look really pretty on bookshelves. I still think Greenpeace should protest the number of trees killed each year by producing strategic plans. I still think they make great coffee coasters.

The next time you are in a strategic planning session, start adding up the salaries around the room, just for fun. For example, twenty people X $100/hr/person = $2000/hr. Is that planning session worth $2000 per hour?. That’s a rough estimate and it might be significantly more in many companies with high-salaried executives. It also doesn’t include consultant fees, travel costs, administrative costs, and production costs. If it takes a few days to generate, without even realizing it, a company can spend $100,000 or much more developing a strategic plan. Does that plan even recoup the cost of making it? Are there better things to spend $100,000 on?

I read books about Facebook and Google in the last few weeks, and I realized something. Both companies didn’t seem to spend any time, money, or effort strategic planning when they started. Ideas came first, action second. Where was strategic planning? Ummm…maybe the authors just forgot that part where the founders hired a consulting firm to map out their future and they produced a fancy document that outlined all the steps they would need to take to be extremely successful. Yep, I’m pretty sure the authors just forget that part. Or not.

As I wrote last year:

In our enthusiasm about the next fad in planning, do we forget to actually measure the value in strategic planning itself? How many dollars are wasted each year by planning exercises begrudgingly done by those involved? Does anyone dare ask whether we “Should” be planning and risk being labeled an organizational anarchist?

My questions still stand.


Strategic Leadership Review (new articles uploaded)

I am proud to announce that the second edition of Strategic Leadership Review is published. In this edition, three new articles are published from Lisa Fournier, Stacey Campbell and Paul Dannar. These articles are quite exceptional and are well worth the read if you get a chance. The new edition of SLR is at Make sure you check it out when you get a chance.

If you are a writer looking to publish articles on strategy, leadership and other related topics, feel free to submit articles to this journal as well.

New Article Published: Encouragement in Foresight

The American Journal of Biblical Theology just published one of my articles. You can check out Encouragement in Foresight: An Ideological Texture Analysis of Philadelphia and Revelation 3:7-13 by clicking here (link will download article in .pdf format).

In this article I analyze underlying ideologies in this passage and focus especially on the encouraging aspects of it. Many times we praise the “hard” leaders and think the encouraging ones are soft. I am not so sure we should, and encouragement is an important tool of any leader to motivate his/her followers. This passage teaches us much about this encouragement and my paper helps understand that a bit further. As always, if you have any feedback or comments, feel free to send those my way.

Temporal Orientations: Time Matters in Planning

“Planning advocates provide little assistance to the administrator in meeting these challenges. Vague statements about planned change, elaborate schematic drawings of the planning function, diverse planning models, and five-year plans that are in fact “shelf-documents” created for evaluation agencies or for year-end reports offer minimal assistance to top-level managers as they respond to internal and external governance systems”

Yawn. Another writer criticizing strategic planning. Boring right? Except the above quote is from an article published in 1983, 28 years ago. Unfortunately, very little has changed in those 28 years. We still struggle with strategic planning, but perhaps part of that struggle is to do with our perspective on time itself.

Ringle & Savickas (1983) argued that a leader’s temporal perspective is crucial to his/her ability to create change and to strategically plan. An organization or leader is typically focused on either the past, the present, or the future, and each focus brings along strengths and weaknesses to the leader’s style and subsequently, to the organization itself.

A leader firmly anchored only in the past temporal perspective will enact a highly rigid leadership style. The institution becomes a “projectile from the past” (love that phrase!) and the leaders’s modus operandi is to protect the original trajectory.

A leader anchored only in the present temporal perspective will focus only on dealing with the latest crisis . The organization “skids” along a visionless and rudderless path and the passions of the present override the past or future from shaping current action.

A leader anchored only in the future temporal perspective will become so focused on building the future that he/she will miss out on present opportunities and will violate past traditions. Stability is sacrificed in lieu of a dreamy future.

Effective leaders must remember the past, experience the present, and anticipate the future…all simultaneously. This “temporal perspective” is an art form; I am not sure any technique can drill this into a leader. Different situations require differing temporal orientations, and that must be acknowledged for the leader to be productive. In extreme cases, the leader must step aside or be removed because of this inability to shift his/her time orientation to what the organization requires.

Perhaps we should revisit Ringle & Savickas’ theory and understand that our plans must be temporally focused in all 3 perspectives. If we can do that effectively, I hope that in 2039 (28 years from now), the quote above will not apply to our organizations anymore.

Ringle, P.M. & Savickas, M.L. (1983, Nov-Dec). Administrative leadership: Planning and time perspective. The journal of higher education, 54(6), 649-661.

Strategic Planning Alternatives: Mission Discernment

I recently wrote two posts criticizing strategic planning. It’s always easy to deconstruct the status quo; it’s tough to reconstruct a viable alternative. I’ll propose some alternatives in my next few posts and I am very interested to hear your thoughts on them.

Consider this quote:
“Executive summaries of requests for decisions are useful tools to consolidate our thinking, but they are not an end in themselves, intended to replace the substantive analysis that normally accompanies such high level summaries. If we begin framing all our thinking and communication in briefing note formats and bullet point analyses, there will inevitably be a tragic erosion of deep engagement with the issues” (Self, 2010a, p.18).

While Self wasn’t directly critiquing strategic planning (SP), that “tragic erosion of deep engagement” is an articulate description of many strategy plans as well.

John Bell wrote a great post called “Why Mission Statements Suck”. I agree, but only because most organizations write the mission statement, post it on their boardroom wall and then forget about it (until the next SP retreat of course). Mission is usually figurative, not integrative. The fault is not in the mission statement itself, but in the discernment of the mission and utilization of the mission in decision-making. But how exactly does one ‘discern’ the mission?

My colleague Dr. Gordon Self has developed a Mission Discernment Tool for use within Covenant Health (Disclaimer: I also work for Covenant Health). In a nutshell, the tool allows leaders to ‘discern’ which path to take as they inevitably face crossroads of decisions, using their mission as the guide.

SP assumes we know all the paths ahead, and that if we try hard enough, we can map our organization’s linear path through the future. But it becomes useless when those paths inevitably change or end up as deadends or cliffs. Mission Discernment assumes the future is blurry and somewhat unpredictable. It assumes leaders will face really tough decisions that can’t be predicted in detail. It is not for petty decisions like what colour of pencils you should buy. Rather, it is for organization-altering decisions such as: Do we expand into this market? Do we lay-off part of our workforce? Do we bribe our way into this country or not? Do we outsource part of our organization? Do we invest in this new service/product? These are tough decisions that make or break leaders and organizations. The Mission Discernment tool gives a framework to wrestle with them.

Mission Discernment also gives us a framework to wrestle with moral decisions our organizations inevitably face. I wonder if Niko Resources would be paying a $9.5Million bribery fine if they had discerned their decisions before bribing foreign officials?

The tool was developed for a Catholic healthcare organization, but I foresee it being adapted to any organization that has a strong, thoughtful and unique mission, and wants to thrive in the future through that mission. It won’t replace strategic planning, but can definitely be a great resource for any leader facing a formidable labyrinth of decisions ahead of him/her.

The Mission Discernment Tool can be viewed here.

Self, G. (2010a). Mission Discernment: A preventative ethics strategy for leaders in Catholic health care organizations. Doctoral Dissertation at St. Stephen’s College.

Self, G. (2010, Nov-Dec). Put values Up front: New discernment tool makes sure values aren’t left to chance. Health Progress. Download article here.

Expensive Coffee Coasters & Strategic Plans

I wrote a post a few weeks back called Save a Tree, Stop Strategic Planning and it was reposted atLeaderLab. Ryan Olsen then wrote a response to that post, and the debate continued with a number of comments on LeaderLab and Twitter. Some people agreed, others were amused, and others weren’t impressed at all. Since it is an interesting and relevant topic, here are more of my thoughts on the subject.


I wrote the title of my last post a bit sarcastically, but perhaps it had more truth to it than I initially thought. We do kill a lot of trees when engage in strategic planning (SP). Are those trees worth it is still my question.

There are lots of diverging opinions on the subject, but many of the opinions depend on your direct role in the SP process. Consider some of the stakeholders:

  • CEOs – I’m not 100% convinced they read the Strategic Plans themselves, but they do look really pretty (especially after Communications departments get ahold of them) and somewhat useful to shareholders and boards. CEOs go along with the exercise because they don’t want to be perceived as being strategy-less.
  • Boards & Shareholders – Probably love SP because it gives them something tangible to hold and dissect. What they don’t know (and forget to ask) is how many of these plans are being used as coffee coasters in the offices and how many swear words were directed at the people who forced middle managers to fill in all the boxes and checklists. A printed plan is not an implemented plan.
  • Middle Managers – Love the thought of SP because it allows them to think for a minute that their opinion actually counts (until the CEO trumps it with a new direction). Hate the actual work involved in doing them unless they are part of the SP department (in which case, this is life-and-death work).
  • Consultants – Love SP! It makes them a lot of money after all. (oops, did I just write that? If any future clients of mine read this, strategic planning is worth the $$$ I will bill you).
  • Frontline Staff – Couldn’t care less about SP and another corporate initiative brought on by all of the above people (see coaster comment above).
  • Customers – Just want the dang product (or service) and wish there were less people strategically planning and more people serving them or making products for them.

In our enthusiasm about the next fad in planning, do we forget to actually measure the value in strategic planning itself? How many dollars are wasted each year by planning exercises begrudgingly done by those involved. Does anyone dare ask whether we “Should” be planning and risk being labelled an organizational anarchist?

I am still not convinced SP is worth it, but some of the commenters on my previous posts indicate that there is some hope out there. My favourite comments were from John Bell. He advocated for a one page (maximum) strategic plan. One page of paper makes a horrible coaster, so perhaps he is onto something. John, if you read this, we’d love to hear more from you on the one page Strategic Plans. You may singlehandedly save thousands of trees by sharing with us.

Save a tree, stop strategic planning

Is strategic planning dead? Or maybe a better question is, should it die? How many leaders have read a strategic plan, fallen asleep, woken up hoping you didn’t snore too loud, and then tried to get through it and fill your part of the boxes in? Strategic plans read like Ikea directions. You know they were written by smart people, but what how on earth is the average Joe supposed to interpret it?

We love to promote workplaces that involve the frontlines, get everyone involved, engage our employees…but has anyone ever been engaged by a strategic plan? I am sure they have been disengaged by one, but I doubt their engagement has increased.

When we spend too much time planning, and not enough time doing, we have a problem in our organizations. And that is my main frustration with strategic planning. Strategic plans vortex thousands of man hours into producing pretty documents and spreadsheets, and forget that someone still has to lead. If the leader is spending most of his time reading and producing those documents and spreadsheets, is he actually leading? If she is leading effectively, does she actually have time to care about the strategic plan itself?

My theory: Strategic planning is simply an invention to justify the existence of middle management, and not a useful tool for those doing the actual leading or for the guys at the bottom doing the real work.

If I’m wrong, please send me examples of its usefulness. I really want to hear about them. If I’m right, please save a few thousand trees and stop producing more plans no one will read. My future kids will thank you for caring so much about the environment.