Book Review: The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning

I can't believe it took me so long to read this book. It is by Henry Mintzberg, who is a well known business professor and author who teaches at McGill University in Montreal. His Ph.D. is from the business school at MIT, just in case you thought he was just some random blogger or something ;-). As you can see from the title, Mintzberg seems to be on my side of the old "strategic planning: dead or alive" debate, as he declares strategic planning to have fallen. Interestingly, he published this book fifteen years ago

I vowed not to open the "dead or live" debate that has flared up periodically over the last five to ten years in the association community. I've made my points, both here and earlier on the Association Renewal blog. I've read carefully those who defend strategic planning, and, frankly, I'm not convinced by the arguments. But either way, it was just "us" and "them" making personal assertions about what works and what doesn't. 

But Mintzberg is an accomplished scholar and his work is immersed in the research literature, and he seems convinced that strategic planning's effectiveness is doomed simply because of the assumptions and approaches that are baked into the process. Specifically, he identifies three fallacies of strategic planning:

1. Predetermination. Strategic planning requires that we predict the future. I know the defenders say it doesn't, but when you set out a goal that you are going to achieve, you are mapping out the future, and you really need at least part of the world to play out the way you have in mind in order for that goal to be achievable. The world doesn't work that way (and Mintzberg cites the research). True, you can play it really safe (last year plus 1%), and you might be right sometimes, but I've always had higher standards for strategy. Once you start having those standards, strategic planning starts to fail because of the fallacy of predetermination.

2. Detachment. Strategic planning is based on a convenient (but flawed) separation of thought from action. You know those SWOT analyses you love to hate? Have you ever noticed that frequently what gets put up on the chart paper as a strength immediately gets proposed by someone else as also a weakness? Doesn't that make you feel like the process is pointless? Well, the reason it happens is because you're discussing strengths and weaknesses WITH NO CONTEXT. Mintzberg calls this detaching thought from action, and it renders the process ineffective. Everything can be simultaneously a strength and a weakness if you consider them outside of their contexts. But if you tried to do that analysis in context, you'd get down into the weeds of what is happening. In fact, you'd have to do it constantly, rather than once a year, because the context would be shifting as you do your work. Hmmm. Strategic planning does its thinking during the retreat and its action for the whole rest of the year. Again, the world doesn't really work this way.

3. Formalization. By definition, strategic planning is a formalized process. It was designed by planners as such in order to perfect and standardize the result so it could be used across all parts of an organization. This has two problems. One, it makes strategic planning deathly boring. Sorry, but those great processes you design in your head are much more exciting in your head than they are in the participants' experience. Consistently. And Mintzberg cites research that says the results of your neat processes are not any better than messy, intuitive, on the fly ways of forming strategy. Second, it overemphasizes rational, deductive thinking (you need to rule things out quickly to get to the next step in the process), and that squeezes creativity out. The result: plans that all look the same and don't change year to year.

It's a fairly long book, and as an academic he often takes a looooong time to make a point, but if you are involved in creating and implementing strategy and you always wondered why you hate strategic planning, Mintzberg can give you a well-reasoned explanation.


  1. 18.01.2011 at 8:55 am

    Funny, I was thinking about that when I wrote my blog about two goals I had a few years back, one of them completed and one of them now rather obsolete. Just having gone through the entire CAE training regimen, I saw the importance of strategic planning pounded in again and again, but in most real-world activities I have been involved with, I have seen the strategic plan be very abstract, lofty, and taking a lot of work & group consensus to create a document, which usually stated what everyone already knew.
    I just read a book called “Rework” by 37 signals, and they put it best. They advocate to start calling plans “Guesses”. As you stated above, you are basically predicting the future, or trying to, so a plan is a guess as to which actions will make your association relevant in an uncertain future.
    Not to sound too down against planning, I firmly believe it is still important to have goals, but these goals should be a flow, a conversation, something that is continuously updated & scrutinized. Making a goal for goal’s sake may not always be the best course of action if the context has changed.
    Thanks for a nice blog. -Garry