Are You Planning or Just Fooling Yourself?

by: Doug Michaelides

It sounds like a bad joke.  Everyone hates strategic planning but nobody wants to work without a strategic plan.  To be more precise, the management team hates the process of strategic planning but the rest of the organization craves a strategic plan to guide the way.

Apart from the effort, what senior managers hate about strategic planning, according to Roger Martin, a professor and the former dean at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, is that “. . . it forces them to confront a future they can only guess at.  Worse, actually choosing a strategy entails making decisions that explicitly cut off possibilities and options.  An executive may well fear that getting those decisions wrong will wreck his or her career.”

Rather than confront these fears, many executives I know dismiss the value of strategic planning altogether.  The logic goes that the competitive, technological, regulatory and social landscapes change so quickly that by the time the plan is written, the underlying assumptions are invalid.  So, instead of being “strategic”, successful organizations should be “opportunistic”.  Don Sull, who teaches strategy at MIT and the London Business School sums up the debate by concluding, “The key to success in today’s volatile markets is strategic opportunism, which allows firms to seize opportunities that are consistent with the bundle of resources and capabilities that sustain their profits.”

Rejoice!  We can finally do away with strategic planning and follow an adaptive strategy of monitoring the market so we’re ready to adapt when opportunity knocks.  Not so fast.  I don’t buy it and neither does Roger Martin.

Strategic Opportunism is a Cop-Out

In his article “Adaptive Strategy is a Cop-Out” Martin challenges the claim that we live in the most turbulent times ever (using historic events like global pandemics, World Wars and the Depression as proof points).  Adaptive strategy is a cop-out for managers too lazy or scared to undertake proper strategic planning.  Says Martin, “The point is that you have to make a prior choice that you can adapt. The temptation with adopting adaptive strategies is that you never make that prior choice.”

There’s no escaping it.  You need to develop a strategy to guide the resource allocation and decision-making of the organization and to serve as a baseline from which to adapt in response to the inevitable changes in the market.  Strategic planning is hard and scary but necessary.

The irony in this debate is that the toughest part of strategy actually isn’t in the formulation, it’s in the implementation (check out what Rene van Diepen has to say on this topic).  I can’t help but wonder whether all this debate about strategy may just be a mechanism to avoid the real hard and scary work of putting strategy into practice!

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