Strategic Planning v. Strategic Thinking

Lots of chatter about strategy and strategic planning on the ASAE Collaborate groups recently, with lots of people throwing around lots of VERY IMPORTANT sounding terms.

Me, I like simplicity. To quote the Eaglet from Alice in Wonderland: “I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and, what’s more, I don’t believe you do either!”

What do we mean when we talk about strategy?

Strategy is a plan of action designed to help you achieve a set of goals. The best strategies answer a few deceptively simple questions:

  • Where are we now?
  • Where would we like to be?
  • How are we going to get there?
  • How will we know we arrived?

The way that tends to manifest in associations is that every 3 to 5 years, we hire an outside facilitator to sit down with the board and – maybe – the senior leadership team and do “strategic planning.” The inevitable result? A lovely report that spends the next 35 to 59 months sitting on a shelf collecting dust.

Meanwhile, the world is changing EVERY SINGLE DAY.

Henry Mintzberg wrote a famous article for the Harvard Business Review in 1994 (that’s almost 20 years ago, people) titled “The Fall and Rise of Strategic Planning.” Short version: he’s not a fan. As Mintzberg points out, strategic planning is about analysis of data, while strategic thinking is about synthesis of data. Strategic planning is a process (see above, RE: report that sits on a shelf), while strategic thinking is about vision, intuition, and creativity. In other words, about where you would like to be as an organization and how you get there,

Dissecting strategic thinking versus strategic planning:

  • Dynamic rather than static
  • Flexible rather than rigid
  • Continuous rather than episodic
  • Focused on emergent trends rather than historic standards
  • Rapid rather than staid
  • Fluid rather than fixed
  • Invention rather than reifying what already exists
  • Journey rather than destination
  • Accommodates disruption rather than being thrown into chaos by it

Again, quoting Mintzberg:

“Strategic planning often spoils strategic thinking, causing managers to confuse real vision with manipulation of numbers. And this confusion lies at the heart of the issue: the most successful strategies are visions, not plans.”

What are you doing to generate a vision of the future in your organization?