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.


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.