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.