This is my season for strategic planning. Last week I spent a full day with our colleagues at the National Trust Historic Site Filoli for their strategic planning retreat. As you read this, I’m on a plane for another retreat with 20 team members designed to scale up one of our most important organizational initiatives. When I return, I have a half-day financial planning retreat set for early August.
That’s a lot of planning!
There are some who say that strategic plans are useless. They generally throw around the phrase “no plan survives contact with the enemy,” which is a popular adaptation of a phrase uttered by Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke, also known as Moltke the Elder. He was a German Field Marshal who lived between 1800 and 1891 and is credited with creating a new approach to directing armies in the field. This entailed developing a series of options rather than simply a single plan. Note that he didn’t stop planning. He simply recognized that in changing environments, you need options and the ability to move within a widely understood general strategy.
Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Graham Kenny helps explain why some have challenges with the idea of plans and planning.
“Mention the word ‘plan’ to most managers and the image that springs to their minds might well be a travel plan. Drawn up by travel agents, these lay out in clear and certain terms the sequence of your trip and what to expect when, specifying: where you’re going from, your destination, where you’ll stay en route and when, how you’ll travel, and so forth.
Or they’ll think of the kind of plans builders employ, often referred to as ‘blueprints.’ The result is much the same as with travel: a specific beginning and end with precise steps along the way. Both plans are neat, prescribed, determined — and manageable. You figure out what to do and then do it.
But not all types of plans have that level of precision. In a fluid, unpredictable environment you need to have a very different understanding of plans and planning.”
Kenny quotes Churchill (“Plans are of little importance but planning is essential”) and then he moves on to note that in fluid environments, as one sees with strategic plans, we too often think of this work like travel planning when we need a different mindset. The HBR article has several important principles to consider when planning. Here are two that resonated with me:
- First, think of your plan as a guidance tool. Many managers “anticipate that by doing the necessary analysis and writing down how their business will succeed the world will be converted from uncertain to certain. In their eyes the strategic plan becomes a device for control rather than one of guidance. They’re not comfortable with the fluid and uncertain Moltke-the-Elder concept.”
- Second, assume the plan is a work in progress. “A strategic plan is not a set-and-forget instrument. It’s a living and breathing document that guides decision making and helps marshal resources.” Harry Kangis, who developed the One-Page Strategic Plan concept we use at the National Trust, is fond of saying “We’re not pouring concrete here.”
I don’t have to remind many of you that the world doesn’t stand still while we plan. But that why planning’s important role is in preparing for change. We all know that change is going to happen. Will you have planned for it?
Have a good week.
More to come…