Take Strategy Seriously

Eric Brown pointed me to a nice piece by Ed Burrows in Harvard Management Update on the Four Fatal Flaws of Strategic Planning. No, I'm not going to open up the dead or alive debate again. That debate doesn't seem to push the learning any further. But Burrows' piece shines some light on something that I think underlies a lot of the criticism of strategic planning:

We don't take strategy seriously.

If we took strategy seriously, we would have processes that worked. It is almost that simple. The four flaws that he mentions are:

  1. Skipping rigorous analysis
  2. Believing strategy can be built in a day
  3. Failing to link strategic planning to strategic execution, and
  4. Dodging strategy review meetings

I summarize these as not taking strategy seriously, particularly in the association world. We give strategy lip service, but as evidenced by these flaws, it really isn't as important as it should be. Maybe that's what is so frustrating about strategic planning. So many associations do it (as evidenced in the Association Trends survey). Even the Burrows article pointed to a Bain & Company survey that said 88% of large companies do it. Yet so many people hate it and mock it.

We care about strategic planning, but we don't care about–or understand–strategy.

If you cared about strategy, you wouldn't do a 45 minute SWOT "analysis" and then write your plan. If you cared about strategy, you would talk about it more often than one weekend per year. If you cared about strategy, you'd be involving the people who implement it a lot more than you do now.  I love this quote from the article's discussion of the second flaw (not devoting enough time):

Yet many executive teams earnestly believe that effective strategies can be identified, explored, and agreed upon during abbreviated offsite meetings where the main driver of the agenda is the timing of snack breaks.

I think we're all so busy, we try to do just enough to get by when it comes to strategy. In fact, strategic planning is good for that. It's a process for lowering the bar. We buy a process that gets us a plan, and that actually allows us to avoid confronting the harder work of strategy. This doesn't ALWAYS happen, mind you, but it happens a lot more often that we'd care to admit.

So what needs to change? Just about everything, I'm afraid. The four flaws open up some rather major cultural issues in most organizations. What do you value? Where do you put your time and attention? Who's responsible for thinking versus doing?

In order to take strategy seriously you need to do much more than strategic planning. You can still have a process, and you can still have a plan (though really, the thirty-nine page versions do have to go). But you likely need to build a broader capacity for strategy in your organization. How do you understand your world? Where do choices actually get made? Who does the work, and how do you ensure the system is learning? More on this later.


  1. 02.04.2009 at 7:06 am

    Jamie -thanks for the link back.
    Love the ‘strategic planning as a process for lowering the bar’ comment.
    I’ve been in many organizations that have allowed their strategic planning to turn into a process that ‘has to be done’ rather than something that can truly take the organization to new levels.
    Great stuff!