It’s the Strategic Planning not the Plan that’s important

I recently came across an article from the USA which resonated strongly with me on the topic of strategic planning. I have always held the view that strategic planning needs to have a high component of flexibility to ensure that the “planners” don’t get blinded by the content of the plan and lose sight of the intrinsic value of the planning.

Norman Wright’s article in the ICMA Public Management magazine reinforces this view and goes a little further to talk about what happens after the plan is formulated and the organisation and its management encounter circumstances that aren’t in the Plan. He uses that interesting military maxim “No plan survives contact with the enemy” to illustrate that a strategic plan is only as good as its capacity to deal with events not contemplated during its preparation.

Wright’s proposition is that whilst plans might sometimes be rendered worthless in changed circumstances, planning is everything.  

Thinking through the planning

Managers often spend a lot of time mapping the physical or business needs of their organisation, its customers or communities looking for straight line solutions which can be delivered by rational application of resources. Frequently however this type of planning is done in the absence of concurrent analytical thinking about the resilience of the plan in the face of circumstances that don’t match the assumptions on which it is based. Wright attempts to address this by developing a kind of formula to act as an analytical checklist.

It involves focusing on:

  • The reasonableness of the planning scope and how easily it can be understood by others;
  • The relevance of the planning to current and emerging issues;
  • The financial sense of proposals embedded in the planning;
  • The ”novelty” or innovation of the planning and its effect on acceptance;
  • The timing factors impacting on delivery;
  • The capability of management and the organisation to actually deliver it;
  • The range of risks that could prevent successful delivery.

He admits that it is not aimed at a mathematical panacea for decision making but rather a model for a thinking framework to assist strategic planning.

The strength of the strategic planning is in its principles

An important consideration in this type of discussion is not to dismiss the content of a Strategic Plan as worthless from the outset but to see it through the prism of its underlying principles. Specific strategic outcomes, for example “enhanced urban liveability” might be arrived at in a number of ways and indeed the pathways to that end may be winding and bumpy. It is not as important to stick rigidly to the plan as it is to navigate the obstacles using the plan’s underlying principles even if some of the specific milestones might need to be compromised or altered.

Another important consideration is that strategic planning isn’t a one-off exercise at a management retreat that sets plans in concrete to be slavishly followed. Effective strategic planning continually revisits the planning and the implementation components to see that they are still relevant, viable and progressing in accordance with the principles – and indeed that the principles are still embraced by the stakeholders.

A strategy that is being pursued on the basis of principles long abandoned by the stakeholders is no strategy at all. Effective strategic planning involves constant reassessment of both the strategy and its underlying assumptions.

Reinforcements can help you focus your strategic planning for greater effect. 

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