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Nonprofit Management

The Strategic Plan is Dead. Long Live Strategy.

In today’s fast-changing world, why freeze your strategic thinking in a five-year plan?

Take a moment and read these two words: strategic plan. Now close your eyes and picture one. If what comes up is a thick binder, gathering dust on a shelf next to other thick binders from five and ten years past, you’re not alone. We believe that a better understanding of the history of strategy and what caused the demise of binder-bound strategic planning can point the way to re-inventing strategy for the world we live in today. It is important to remember that strategy’s roots are military. Military strategy focuses on setting objectives, collecting intelligence, and then using that intelligence to make informed decisions about how to achieve your objectives—take that hill, cut this supply line.

Historically, the battlefield was a place where you could count on a few constants:

  • The past was a good predictor of the future. There were years or decades between meaningful shifts in the basic variables, such as the power of a soldier’s weapons or the range of aircraft.
  • Good data was scarce and hard to come by. Scouts and spies had to risk their lives to find and relay information, and had to be ever on the lookout for enemy deception.
  • Lines of communication were unreliable at best. Small numbers of clear directives were a tactical imperative.

Not surprisingly, after a couple of millennia, military strategy became well adapted to these constraints.

After World War II, when military strategy came into the business world as strategic planning, so did these constraints. As a result, strategic planners focused on predicting the future based on historic trend lines; invested heavily in gathering all available data; and produced a small number of directives issued from the top, for the rest of the organization to execute.

This approach to strategic planning was a reasonably good fit for much of the business world from the fifties through the eighties. But with the rise of high-tech tools and increased globalization in the nineties, the world began to change, and now it looks quite different indeed. The future is no longer reasonably predictable based on the past—in fact, it is liable to be startlingly different. Good data is easy to access and cheap to acquire. Communication is rapid, indiscriminate, and constant.

The world has become a more turbulent place, where anyone with a new idea can put it into action before you can say “startup” and launch widespread movements with a single Tweet. This has left organizational leaders with a real problem, since the trusted, traditional approach to strategic planning is based on assumptions that no longer hold. The static strategic plan is dead.

This has led to increasingly polarized attitudes about the value of having a strategy at all. Some leaders are valiantly trying to save strategic planning by urging us to focus even more on rigorous data analysis. Others deny the value of strategy, arguing that organizations need agility above all else (an attitude that famed strategist Roger Martin reports hearing with increasing frequency).

We think that what is necessary today is a strategy that breaks free of static plans to be adaptive and directive, that emphasizes learning and control, and that reclaims the value of strategic thinking for the world that now surrounds us. Martin acknowledged this point at the Skoll World Forum in 2010 when he said: “Every model is wrong and every strategy is wrong. Strategy in a way helps you learn what is ‘righter’. People think you can prove a strategy in advance. You can’t.”

The approach we developed in working with our clients at Monitor Institute is what we call adaptive strategy. We create a roadmap of the terrain that lies before an organization and develop a set of navigational tools, realizing that there will be many different options for reaching the destination. If necessary, the destination itself may shift based on what we learn along the way.

Creating strategies that are truly adaptive requires that we give up on many long-held assumptions. As the complexity of our physical and social systems make the world more unpredictable, we have to abandon our focus on predictions and shift into rapid prototyping and experimentation so that we learn quickly about what actually works. With data now ubiquitous, we have to give up our claim to expertise in data collection and move into pattern recognition so that we know what data is worth our attention. We also know that simple directives from the top are frequently neither necessary nor helpful. We instead find ways to delegate authority, get information directly from the front lines, and make decisions based on a real-time understanding of what’s happening on the ground. Instead of the old approach of “making a plan and sticking to it,” which led to centralized strategic planning around fixed time horizons, we believe in “setting a direction and testing to it,” treating the whole organization as a team that is experimenting its way to success.

This approach wouldn’t surprise anyone in the world of current military strategy. Recent generations of military thinkers have long since moved beyond the traditional approach, most notably famed fighter pilot John Boyd. He saw strategy as a continuous mental loop that ran from observe to orient to decide and finally to act, returning immediately to further observation. By adopting his mindset (with a particular emphasis on the two O’s, given our turbulent context), we can get much better at making strategy a self-correcting series of intentional experiments.

To provide structure to this fluid approach, we focus on answering a series of four interrelated questions about the organization’s strategic direction: what vision you want to pursue, how you will make a difference, how you will succeed, and what capabilities it will take to get there.

The skills and mindset for today’s strategic planning will come from continuously asking ourselves these questions about our organizations, programs, and initiatives. Once we accept Dwight D. Eisenhower’s sage advice that “Plans are useless, but planning is everything,” we will be ready to adapt to whatever curveballs the twenty-first century sees fit to throw.

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COMMENTS

  • What a great article! There’s such a movement in the industry toward the utilization of more and more agile tools, but there are still elements of the ‘old ways’ that even those of us who have a hand in building said tools are unreasonably married to- I’m the chair of the strategic planning committee for the non-profit whose board I serve on and we’ve been struggling away at the same old type of strategic plan for the past three months.  This article really gave me some food for thought about why- even with diligent, experienced application of skills and energy- we haven’t been making much headway.  The ‘cascade’ of strategic choices in particular was helpful in opening up my thinking about our foundational approach to building the plan and the ways in which it needs to change.  Thanks for the terrific post!

  • BY TITO HERNANDEZ

    ON January 11, 2013 07:04 AM

    Excellent article!!
    In currents time, we must play with trends and escenaries

  • sfrisch's avatar

    BY sfrisch, Sierra Business Council

    ON January 11, 2013 07:21 PM

    Amazingly our organization is in the process of reviewing and updating our strategic plan, and come to the conclusion that we did not need a plan; we needed a system to focus our vision, choose the correct situational strategy, execute, measure progress, adapt to what we have learned, and re-focus it on other problems.  This article put in a few simple words and graphs the iterative process I have been trying to capture for the last 2 months.  Kudos to the authors, incredibly helpful!

  • Juan Gironella's avatar

    BY Juan Gironella

    ON January 12, 2013 12:52 AM

    Absolutely agreed. There’s no doubt companies need a faster and more empiric way of seeing business. I strongly recommend any entrepreneur / manager reading this article to further understand this new way of gathering information and analyzing strategy to read “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries; an outstanding book strongly related to this matter.

  • BY Peter Giesen

    ON January 12, 2013 06:04 AM

    Great article!. Its nice to see Eisenhower referenced, but it would be appropriate to cite Clausewitz, the father of modern military strategy and the concept of evolving strategy.

  • BY Debi Davis

    ON January 12, 2013 07:55 AM

    I’m a strategy geek, and found this article to be brilliant.  I particularly like the concise “Cascade of Strategic Choices.”

    I find that adding an element of “who” is helpful. E.g., Who are we trying to reach / help? Who will be our strongest advocates? Answering these questions might help to focus the answers to the “what,” “where” and “how” questions.

    Also, loved the Eisenhower quote!

  • Richard Childs, Magellan Training Consulting's avatar

    BY Richard Childs, Magellan Training Consulting

    ON January 13, 2013 05:50 AM

    Elegant and Debi Davis adds value with the “who” analysis.  Deloitte Consulting says 80% of change failure is attributable to human factors.

    The “who” has several other dimensions both external and internal

    Externally, we need to understand and position our strategy relative to alternative sources of the services.

    Internally, stakeholder analysis determines, vis-a-vis the status quo and change, who has something to win, lose, the risks and consequences associated, then “get-on-side” strategies.  Then stakeholder engagement is a crucial factor.

    De facto this integrates change management and raises the probability of successful strategic change.

  • Starlyn D'Angelo's avatar

    BY Starlyn D'Angelo

    ON January 17, 2013 08:33 AM

    This is very interesting food for thought.  Non-profit organizations who wish to use this approach may find it difficult as many funding entities require that we submit a traditional strategic plan as a part of our application package. 

    Perhaps we could take a gamble and submit a plan based upon the cascade of strategic choices and see what happens.  Having sat in on several grant review panels, I know that the process is tightly controlled in the interest of providing a “fair” review.  However, some funders may be more open minded if they see more non-traditional plans.

  • BY Julie Simpson

    ON January 18, 2013 07:36 AM

    BY: Julie Simpson and Chris Cardona, TCC Group

    Great piece! We’re big fans of an adaptive approach. For us, strategy is a framework for decision-making. It’s a tool for managing uncertainty and change—but always based on a hard-earned clarity that underlies an organization’s mission. Strategy also provides the filament that connect an organization’s everyday activities to the big-picture outcomes that motivate staff and attract donors – via shorter-term, more “realistic” outcomes the organization can have more direct control (there’s that word!) over.

    Speaking of prediction: Nate Silver talks about tapping into your inner Bayesian – an approach to statistics that’s about stating your “priors,” your assumptions, then continuously updating them based on new information. Good strategy means tapping into your inner Bayesian, in the sense of getting crystal clear on your “priors,” and then setting up systems (that become part of your day-to-day approach to your work) so you can continuously update them based on new information.

    Thanks for sparking an enjoyable discussion! Starlyn, your point is particularly important. Funders should be looking for your ability to be strategic, that capacity. It’s more important than a document. (Though those are useful too.)

  • BY Ranjan Paul

    ON January 18, 2013 09:09 AM

    Great article.

  • BY Lester Olmstead-Rose, La Piana Consulting

    ON January 18, 2013 04:38 PM

    We couldn’t agree more! Developing strategy in real-time takes strategic thinking, not strategic planning. We’ve pushed for years for nonprofits to focus more actively on building strategy first, and developing tools to apply strategic decision-making in real time, rather than every few years. We’re excited to see the sector continuing to embrace more dynamic and responsive approaches to strategy development.

  • BY Chantal Cholette

    ON January 21, 2013 04:37 AM

    Quite interesting indeed. I’ve been encouraging organizations to integrate strategy in day to day practice for years. Your article offers a framework to do so in a fluent, organic method. Thank you for your contribution.

  • BY Gerald Nanninga

    ON January 21, 2013 04:37 AM

    Another question I would add to the mix is “what is my advantage?”  In a world where everyone is just chasing and experimenting, it is easy to just run after business fads with no discernible advantage.  Being in the right place with no advantage doesn’t gain you much.

  • BY Shayne Wyler

    ON January 21, 2013 08:25 AM

    Great insight Dana and Noah.

    Thank you for sharing this.

    To realize your value in the lives of those you serve, the four questions you ask are excellent.  We here at Seven, follow a similar process, to clarify your direction, build a culture of we and structure for sustainability.

    Again thank you for sharing your insight.

  • BY Kira McGurrin

    ON January 21, 2013 01:53 PM

    Nice piece.  You caught the essence of what I have been thinking about for months and gave it a cool visual.  It is a bit like Agile project management with scrums…that is like how I like to think about it.  There is a place for it in everyone’s business.  Many people are still living life, like tomorrow will be the same.  Wait a day, tomorrow can bring new opportunities and perhaps a looking at the problem from a different angle will provide answers never thought possible.

  • Delia Clark's avatar

    BY Delia Clark

    ON January 23, 2013 03:24 AM

    Really helpful!  Do you have thoughts about how this could be adapted to groups working on strategic planning for collective impact?

  • Dennis Dugan's avatar

    BY Dennis Dugan

    ON January 24, 2013 01:11 PM

    I think it was Michel Robert who opined that strategic planning is really the periodic formalization of the current state of strategic thinking.
    And, that, strategic thinking is synthesizing what we already know and what we learn into a perspective about the direction the company should follow.  Synthesizing is the combining of often diverse concepts into a coherent whole.  Strategic thinking is also an intuitive and creative process.  Therefore it can’t be fully developed ‘on schedule’.  The outcome of strategic thinking is an integrated perspective of the enterprise, a not-too-precisely articulated vision of direction.
    Those Robert comments synch well with this article.

  • S Graubart's avatar

    BY S Graubart

    ON January 26, 2013 01:50 PM

    This sounds very similar to the old debate between deliberative vs. emergent strategy.

    See:  http://www.forbes.com/sites/karlmoore/2011/03/28/porter-or-mintzberg-whose-view-of-strategy-is-the-most-relevant-today/

  • Gregory Kurth's avatar

    BY Gregory Kurth

    ON January 31, 2013 11:56 PM

    The article makes a great case for strategic thinking over static strategic plans. Nevertheless, I think organizations must clarify their strategic intent. Strategic intent helps to identify that sweet spot, that differentiating component that makes the actions of your mission distinct. It helps to define what you do as well as what you won’t do. When this is clear, organizations can be begin operationalizing their activities, whether or not they are deeply ingrained in a plan.

  • Peg Gillard's avatar

    BY Peg Gillard

    ON February 2, 2013 06:59 AM

    We need to apply this to the current system of public education. It is stuck in an historical time vapor-block.

  • BY Kevin Cahill

    ON February 6, 2013 06:16 AM

    What a great article on the need for organizations to be adaptive and experimental. This is a huge shift for so many companies I work with. Understanding that change is a good thing and will happen continuously, rather than a trying to set a static path to an unknown future is not only the right thing to do, it creates a culture of learning.

  • BY R Y Madkaikar

    ON February 13, 2013 09:50 PM

    The article is very good signifying the adaptive approach. But beyond the “OODA” concept, one more thing I wish to add i.e. Tracking.  You have to understand where your strategy is going to take you.  In order to understand that you need to have a sound understanding of who your Customer is.  If one can understand that, then although the product life cycle has shorten I feel that Strategic Planning can still work wonders.

  • Loren Harris's avatar

    BY Loren Harris

    ON March 15, 2013 11:30 AM

    Thanks to the authors for an interesting article that raises important points about the long-standing need for organizations/people to be adaptive. However, one should be cautious about presenting false choices. Strategic planning in any setting, military, corporate, nonprofit was never meant to be static. Effective organizational leadership is, and has always been, about adapting to change and using information to make decisions. These are principles that hold whether one starts a social media movement or leads a fifty-year old agency.  Certainly, new technologies increase the scale and speed at which information is available and actions can taken but this has been true with every major technological advance. Whether a strategic plan or adaptive planning an organization has to be flexible, cognizant of an ever-changing environment and able to use information/data to make decisions that advance the organization’s goals or vision of success.

  • Great article! Along similar lines of the book good strategy/bad strategy

  • Carl Bordeaux's avatar

    BY Carl Bordeaux

    ON March 20, 2013 03:22 AM

    Great article!

  • BY Ginny Lang

    ON March 20, 2013 12:29 PM

    I agree—great article.  It’s always been the case that any plan that goes into a drawer is useless and it’s also always been the trick to figure out the best way to make a plan a living document that can adapt to the changing environment.  I like this article because you talk about constantly asking questions and not being afraid to get answers that differ from the conventional wisdom.  Thank you!

  • BY James Movich

    ON April 3, 2013 01:13 PM

    Good Article…
    I tend to agree with Debi - processes don’t do things, people do, and without the “who” there seems to be a component missing.

    I also think the change from data collection to pattern recognition in adaptive strategy could lead to the possible (and logical?) progression of pattern recognition to anticipated outcome, allowing for faster responsiveness and execution.

  • Mwinyikione Mwinyihija's avatar

    BY Mwinyikione Mwinyihija

    ON April 9, 2013 01:05 AM

    amazed with the emerging theorem in retrospect to strategic plans! Its refreshing and provides an impetus to newer thinking in strategic planning! In Africa we are still stuck with plans due to donor conditionality as a prerequisite - Time to change I think!!!!

  • BY Barbara Kates

    ON April 10, 2013 11:31 AM

    Many of us who assist organizations in planning have moved in this direction.  Thank you for succinctly describing where we are going for us.  I also think a key part of today’s plan is building a network of support to help carry your organization through the good times and the tough times.

  • Prof. Anjali Vamburkar's avatar

    BY Prof. Anjali Vamburkar

    ON May 5, 2013 12:22 AM

    Good article indeed! I have one addition though.. Can we add one more dimension to the graph of “Cascade of Strategic choices”? I think defining the time constraints for achieving the strategic goals is equally important. The last step in the cascade could be the time line definition. This will give a concrete target which can be measurable.

  • BY Maria Katrien Heslin

    ON June 17, 2013 03:46 PM

    Fine article. Let’s face it, a good strategic plan is only as effective as the individuals and organization who create it. If a plan fails or is considered to be written in stone, that isn’t the plan’s fault, it is the fault of the thinking-within-the-box people who put it together and are implementing it. Instead, an excellent strategic plan is one that should be continually reviewed, discussed, kept in front of staff, communicated, evaluated, altered, measured and made very visible to all stakeholders.

  • BY Rodney Brim

    ON August 2, 2013 04:10 PM

    Dana and Noah, just saw your blog so am chiming in late.  Thanks for writing, great content.  Very much agree with the premise.  Actually I beginning to occupy the space that sees strategic planning as an oxymoron.  Companies who do it are typically not strategic, and they don’t follow the plan… which then leads to the question of what is a strategic plan actually providing for most organizations?  Maybe a sense of comfort or being in control.  While musing on that, two additional points.

    1. I think the work strategic planning needs to be reworded to get traction.  I was just working in a vertical, in which the majority of organizations believe strategic planning is a waste of time and effort.

    Curious about your thoughts, but I’ve been having fun with putting the word “Tentative” in front of strategic plan, e.g. needing regular testing, validation and confirmation we’re still on the right track.  I’ve stated it a bit better in this blog: http://rodneybrim.com/think-strategy-think-risky-assumptions

    2. I think your opening strategy question is something a consultant might ask, but not 99% of the businesses I work with.  Their strategy is about how to grow.  And if they are non-profit, it bounces between mission and back to how to acquire funds.  I could be off-track, but I know the first step is key in every process, as it is in strategic planning. 

    I usually boil strategy down to one singular first step, defining how to grow the business based upon an analysis of the market first, internally second.  A little more on that on this blog: http://rodneybrim.com/starting-your-strategic-plan-on-the-right-foot

  • BY Yakubu Ochefu

    ON August 10, 2013 02:34 AM

    Great article. I am in the process of auditing the first year performance of my 5 year vision plan for my University. Your article has given me a template that will defiantly improve on what we set out to do last year.

  • Michael Jacobson's avatar

    BY Michael Jacobson

    ON September 13, 2013 10:00 AM

    I completely agree with the premise and the concept, however…I don’t see this brave new world of easy to collect data, effective communication, and strategic orientation in my daily world. Yes, centralized top down planning feels outmoded but the skills, systems and mindset to move to this approach imply an organizational nimbleness and agility that I rarely see in the real world. Would love to know what factors the authors see as preconditions for pursuing this approach. What skills need to be present? What systems are assumed? The overwhelming flow of data (note I did not say “information” which implies that is is value added and understandable) makes coming to agreed upon direction, much less implementing that direction harder, not easier. I think a systems appraoch is vital for any strategic work to advance. Appreaciate the provocoative premise and the conceptual construct.

  • BY Richard Brown

    ON October 3, 2013 07:15 AM

    Excuse me for saying this, but frankly I’m struggling to understand why this article has attracted quite so much positive endorsement. 

    It’s clear and nicely written for sure, but what exactly is new here? 

    It must be the clients I work with, few of which would find anything in the article to disagree with, precisely because most of them moved way beyond ‘the strategic plan’ as a static, formulaic annual ritual some considerable time ago.

    On a more positive tack, explicitly featuring capabilities in the ‘cascade of strategic choices’ is certainly helpful.  Many clients still struggle to understand the concept of ‘capability’, and saddle themselves with unworkable strategies as a result.

  • john luo's avatar

    BY john luo

    ON November 5, 2013 07:31 PM

    Excellent article, sorry to read it late!

  • Tim Merritt's avatar

    BY Tim Merritt

    ON December 17, 2013 07:31 AM

    Excellent article and I agree with other comments regarding the importance of clearly defining Strategic Intent within an organization.  In my experience,  a tactical roadmap has a predetermined destination which discourages strategic thinking and agility.  Strategic intent offers a framework for creative thinking and solutions that otherwise may never come to light.
    Thanks!

  • Charles Chapman's avatar

    BY Charles Chapman

    ON December 17, 2013 12:39 PM

    Late to the party. I like the article because it reiterates the strategic planning (broad plan and roadmap) and execution tension I’ve dealt with as a CIO since the early 2000s; moving strategic review (strategic thinking) into the operational world of business, adjust compass heading and review alternatives with tradeoffs when necessary, and ensure the strategic partnerships are intact as we continue forward. I like the point of ‘cascade of strategic choices’. Collapsing the strategic intent with the speed of thought to achieve the vision. Then adapt when necessary – ensuring relevance to the customer. Thanks for the stimulus.

  • BY Jim Williamson

    ON January 8, 2014 01:56 PM

    I’ve read this article multiple times since it was published in January 2014, and I love it more every time.  Couple the article’s major thesis with Peter Sim’s brilliant book, Little Bets, on fostering creativity & innovation as a means to testing your strategies and I believe you’ve got both the What & the How of the dynamic operating environment we’re all seeking.

  • BY Sophia Walker

    ON January 10, 2014 12:48 PM

    Great article. There is no one-size fits all solution for any business. Strategic planning still works for some and it can’t be completely discounted just because there are tools or purportedly better ways.

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