Is the Strategic Plan Dead?
Many organizations use the strategic plan as the bridge between the current state and a desired future state. Yet in our current world of seemingly nonstop change and disruption, many pundits have declared that strategic planning is—or should be—dead. When the future is so unpredictable, we should just react as it unfolds, say the most extreme.
At its best, strategic planning is next‑level strategic thinking that provides a directional roadmap between today and an envisioned future. It makes the implications of a strategic direction more tangible and guides focus, priorities, and near‑term actions.
At its worst, it is a long‑term tactical action plan that starts not from strategic choices but rather from financial growth goals. And at its worst, I agree—the strategic plan is, or should be, dead.
Here’s why: A three‑year strategic plan that started with a goal of x% growth in revenue would not be useful in making decisions that arise from unforeseen events. And a static long‑term action plan will invariably become outdated and irrelevant in a fast‑changing and unpredictable world.
The Call for a New Strategic Mindset: A Day‑to‑Day Approach to Strategic Leadership
Yet, true strategic leadership is needed now more than ever. To be proactive AND responsive to this fast‑changing world.
Strategic leaders have always needed to manage the tension between what we know and what we believe. Our job is not to predict; it is to envision. To guide, shape, create. To make bets and become stewards of strategic change.
The rate of change has only amplified the fact that strategy is a dynamic, creative act—the act of creating the future through day‑to‑day actions and decisions. The future has always been unpredictable and unknowable. It’s just becoming more so with the ever‑rising complexity of the world. We can’t plan our way through a multi‑year transformation—we must lead our way through it.
Day‑to‑day strategic leadership provides the needed strategic agility and flexibility to be proactive AND responsive to meaningful change in your market context.
What Is Day‑to‑Day Strategic Leadership?
We typically think of day‑to‑day operations, but day‑to‑day strategic leadership—what exactly is that?
Day‑to‑day strategic leadership is being future‑focused in the present moment.
It is operating with a strategic mindset in day‑to‑day issues and opportunities. It is:
- Decision‑making today that has impact on the longer term.
- Aligning short‑term actions with long‑term direction across the organization.
- Learning and adapting to a future that is undeniably different than what we anticipated.
Deciding and Aligning
Adopting the mindset and behaviors of day‑to‑day strategic leadership is about aligning actions and intentions across the organization. Aligning priorities across functions and budget to direction. Seemingly straightforward: Do what you said you were going to do when you crafted your strategy.
But strategy and planning are thinking exercises. And if there is one thing I have learned over the years, it is that just because we think it doesn’t mean we do it. Only when we are faced with the reality of our ideas, the lived experience, do we discover whether we have the courage of our convictions.
For example, a friend recently asked me if I was interested in skydiving. Sure, I said. I like the idea of it. Scary, but cool to imagine finding the courage to step out of that plane. To take the risk and truly soar. Breathtaking beauty and perspective. And when that same friend gave me the experience of skydiving for my birthday—my heart took a plunge into my stomach. $%!% … Are you serious? Are we really doing this?!
Idea and practice. Intention and action. An enormous gap.
Day‑to‑day strategic leadership is putting those strategic intentions into practice. Each day, making decisions that either move us closer to or farther from our envisioned future.
Angst‑ridden decisions that can make or break careers and companies, especially when not made with a strategic mindset. Consider these actions:
- Continuing to prioritize and allocate resources to building the customer and value proposition of the future while your core business begins to decline—despite the backlash you will likely face from executive leadership or investors.
- Saying no to an attractive opportunity that could deliver short‑term revenue because it isn’t aligned with your strategic direction.
What about decisions that arise from unforeseen events?
We tend to think of strategy, particularly strategic planning, as a linear process. Make a handful of top‑level, direction‑setting decisions and then the rest of the organization will go “implement” those decisions. All else remaining static while we “go execute the plan.” This linear view assumes control and predictability—cause and effect. It is a comforting feeling, but ineffective in the complex world we live in.
That linear mindset eliminates all the executional agility that is embedded in true strategy. True strategy provides guidance for the many, many downstream decisions we make day‑to‑day. Including ones that arise from the unexpected.
When we approach these decisions with the mindset and perspective of a strategist, whenever they arise, we continually align long‑term direction with near‑term action—while learning and adapting to an ever‑changing context.
Learning and Adapting
A robust strategy is based on a perspective of the future or potential futures that could unfold. Strategic choices are made in the context of a set of assumptions about that unknowable future.
Strategic agility emerges when you capture the driving assumptions and beliefs on which your strategic choices are based, and then consistently monitor them—monitor them to invalidate your strategic assumptions. Wait, what? The “devil’s advocate” lives on! Looking for information that may invalidate your assumptions will help you recognize the need to make a strategic pivot before it is too late.
This all means we need to lead with the humility, curiosity, and resilience of a creator. With a mindset that signals to employees that it is OK to surface observations and challenges to the driving strategic assumptions. The more eyes scanning a complex and changing environment for emerging threats or opportunities, the better.
We can’t adapt if we can’t accept that—maybe, just maybe—we got it wrong. With a future that is becoming less and less predictable with each day, getting it wrong is inevitable. The fallacy is that we could ever predict the future. At best, we can envision possibilities that are more or less likely. But at the end of the day, strategy is a bet. When we resist the black‑and‑white thinking of right/wrong, succeed/fail, we open the possibility of becoming the stewards of transformation that we are meant to be.
Even with that right/wrong mindset, we can effectively guide the organization while being right AND wrong. One client company has great strategic insight and clarity of strategic direction. A memo was issued two to three years ago at that company that outlined a strategic transformation—fundamental shifts in value creation and channels to reach the patients they ultimately serve. These changes were comparable in magnitude to IBM’s historic transformation from a mainframe provider to a total IT solution provider.
The initial view included obsolescence of the current channel to patients. A couple of years later, that view has changed, with acquisitions and market shifts. The current channel will remain a customer AND will not be a primary driver of the business going forward. The estimate of the magnitude of change (5%, 15%, or 30% of revenue) may have been wrong, but the directional shift that lies before the company remains spot‑on. Right and wrong at the same time.
Even when the magnitude of change is unknown or wrong, a declaration of the direction of change is invaluable. In the context of strategy, directionally correct is what matters most. Our job is not to “execute the plan” predictably over multiple years, but rather to steward the transformation of a business to sustainably create value for customers, relative to the competition.
Clarity of direction, adaptability of action. It is not a fixed path—it is neither linear nor totally predictable. Rather, it is adaptive to the conditions before you, an unpredictable journey of creativity and resilience toward an inspiring destination. The day‑to‑day actions you take on that journey are expected to change, like a sailboat zigzagging through the wind to reach its ultimate destination.
A Demanding Act of Leadership
Strategic agility through day‑to‑day strategic leadership. A demanding act of leadership to develop strategies that provide a stable direction and foundation for decision‑making AND are responsive to meaningful change. Designed to be flexible AND constantly pressure tested.
Consider these companies that failed to adapt their strategies as needed: Borders, Kodak, Blockbuster. Did they fail because they lacked the day‑to‑day learning and monitoring that would help them recognize the threats (or opportunities) around them? Or did they lack the ability to take decisive action, incurring short‑term hits and criticism, to survive in the long run? Those angst‑ridden decisions that can make or break careers …. and companies.
Each day we must focus on the decisive—the direction‑setting decisions that will shape and influence the future viability of the business. And then we must have the courage of conviction to close the gap between intention and action while at the same time being open and receptive, creating new possibilities.
Easier said than done, but that is an exploration for another day.
In the meantime, ask yourself, your team, your colleagues:
Do we have a viable business three to five years from now?
Live with this question each day, and let it guide you into a mindset of day‑to‑day strategic leadership. Each day, stewarding the transformation of your business to meet an ever‑changing environment.