Separation of Strategy and Plan

Jeffrey Pfeffer’s column in Business 2.0 this month is about giving leaders the permission to say “I don’t know,” which is definitely something I support. The fallacy that leaders should know the answers all the time gets us in trouble—because instead of admitting they don’t know, leaders either say nothing (so we are forced to invent a story about what they really think) or they end up using a lot of words to say absolutely nothing.

In the column, Pfeffer tells the story of a Board that wants to fire a CEO. The problem? The CEO

“had convinced himself that his strategy was the only way to go. No matter what the strategy, that plan spells doom. If you become so attached to your course of action that proving it right becomes more important than your overall success, chances are you are not going to succeed.”

I’ve written before about the importance in the different meaning of the words “strategy” and “plan.” Note Pfeffer’s language: “no matter what the strategy, that plan spells doom.” The flaw in this case is not about the strategy, it is about the blind commitment to the plan. But when a plan becomes “strategic” (and we spend gobs of time and money developing it), then it is hard to do anything BUT commit to it blindly. The trick is to think and act strategically while reviewing and modifying your plans. A piece of doing that is to simply (but powerfully) change your language. Talk about planning. Talk about strategy. Do NOT talk about strategic planning.