When most people think of strategic planning, they usually think of some sort of periodic gathering where a group of people engage in a ritual of deciding where the future of the organization is heading. Deep down, most of us feel like it is a waste of time because we can see the last Strategy Plan on the shelf with three to four years of dust on it.
In my experience, these activities can be summed up as performative. In most cases, we are performing strategy and not being strategic. We behave “as if” strategy is linear and sequential. We behave “as if” we have a crystal ball and can predict the future. We invest time, energy, money, and resources on what is usually a performance of strategy or a checkbox item to comfort ourselves and board members.
Of the many things we often ignore, there are three that stand out for me: the human, the context, and the process.
Organizations are made up of irrational, emotional creatures we call humans. They have their own agendas, play games, and sometimes sabotage plans. We have bought into the false idea that humans are rational beings that follow instructions, on command. We are not.
We make plans “as if” we are rational beings. We develop strategic plans “as if” when we decide on this strategic plan our team will execute it as it has been laid out. This almost never happens. Management literature has largely been informed by an approach that organizations are machines and humans are submissive and conforming.
When you engage in strategic planning, take an approach that embraces the view that people are autonomous, irrational and play games. Your strategy works when you work in the most human way possible. The best way to do that is through Better Conversations with all of the people in your ecosystem. The thing that makes us human is conversation, yet so few of us focus on improving how we have conversations. To focus on the human is to focus on the conversation.
They say context is king. Strategic planning is no different. We define Strategy as the alignment of outputs/objectives, capabilities and resources with the opportunities and challenges the environment provides. In this definition, context refers to the opportunities and challenges the environment provides. Context can mean many things. Here, I will focus on one challenge I see regularly.
Most people tend to ignore the distinction between internal and external opportunities and challenges. In effect, they are ignoring their internal context. It is easier to look out the window and point blame than it is to stare into the mirror and analyze how you are contributing to the problem.
Before we can engage with the world, we need to address our internal context. Do our people feel safe, trusted and respected? Are we having meaningful or insightful conversations with our internal stakeholders?
When we begin to look into the mirror, it forces us to ask questions like, do we have the right people on the team? Have we all bought into the strategic plan? How motivated is our team? So, how are you paying attention to your internal context? How are you having better conversations with your team about your internal context?
In thinking about process there are many areas we can focus on. The one I choose to focus on today is often referred to as procedural justice. Was the process transparent and were people included? Who was part of the conversation? Were decisions imposed on people? Was the process fair? I contend that organizations are conversations, and we create the world through conversations.
When we engage in strategic planning we are, in essence, starting a conversation about the future we wish to create. It is essential to think about who was part of the conversation. Who gets to decide the future we wish to create? Too often, it is a small group of people who decide on behalf of others what future they wish to create. What difference do we want this company to make? All too often, those who are deciding the future are far removed from the context. One simple action we can take is to ask when we think of our strategy planning, was the process fair? Was it just?
Strategy planning is not easy. For far too long we have built companies that treat humans “as if” they are part of a machine. Organizations are conversations, and strategic planning is an ongoing conversation; one that determines where things are going and how things will get done. In your ongoing conversations, pay attention to three things: the human, the context, and the process. You cannot redefine your performance without it.