“I Hate Strategic Planning”

If you have heard this sentiment before, or if you share it yourself, perhaps it’s just time to try a different approach.

That’s how the meeting began. We were doing introductions at the start of a two-day Real-Time Strategic Planning session, and one of the organization’s board members — a formidable guy with a booming voice — took the opportunity to make his feelings plain:

“I just want you to know that I hate strategic planning, and I don’t want to be here.”

Okay, so it’s not the most auspicious beginning, but you have to start somewhere. And we couldn’t blame him too much; a lot of strategic planning experiences do leave something to be desired. After all, that’s why we set out to create an alternative approach some ten years ago.

Real-Time Strategic Planning was developed out of a four-year project examining the limitations of “traditional” strategic planning. We’d heard many nonprofit leaders say what a waste of time it felt like to go through an onerous strategic planning process every three to five years, only to come up with an exhaustive (and exhausting!) document destined to do little more than sit on a shelf and gather dust.

Through literature review, numerous interviews, and intensive pilot projects, we learned that common shortfalls of many strategic planning efforts include: mistaking goals for strategy; generating more goals than can reasonably be pursued; expecting strategies to fit within a rigid timeline; confusing strategic planning with consensus building; and frustrating staff with bad data, inaction, or both. (Any of this sound familiar?)

To help organizations avoid this all-too-common experience, we turned strategic planning on its head by making it not about planning, but about thinking and acting. The premise of Real-Time Strategic Planning is that what organizations need in a fast-changing and uncertain environment is not another 40-page plan, but a set of practical, flexible tools to help them in the essential — and ongoing — task of developing actionable strategies.

So, back in the meeting room, we carried on in the hope that the restless board member would stick with us and perhaps find that strategic planning can be different. As we engaged the group that day and in the weeks to follow in defining their big questionsunpacking their organization’s unique strengths, assessing the market without getting bogged down in “analysis paralysis,” and generating strategic responses, he actually ended up becoming a superstar participant on the planning team, and one of the strategy’s most vocal champions moving forward.

In this example, as in much of our experience, involving individuals who bring a healthy skepticism or alternative views to the strategy process is critical. It strengthens the results by keeping the conversations honest, helps to surface potential blind spots and identify issues that could derail the process later if left unaddressed, and in a way “pressure tests” the strategy before it is launched.

Real-Time Strategic Planning seeks to make organizational strategy more responsive — and to make the process of getting there more rewarding. Like any approach, it’s not going to please everyone all the time, and it too must flex to meet different needs, but over the past ten years, it has given hundreds of organizations an alternative to “how strategic planning has always been done” and aligns with approaches now becoming increasingly accepted as the state of the art in the sector.

So if you hate traditional strategic planning, it could be time to try something different.

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