Is Your Strategic Plan Actually Strategic?

Posted by
February 9, 2021

Topic: Strategic Planning

Written by Karin Blair


“It is hard to accomplish anything without a plan.” 

As a planner, it’s easy for me to subscribe to this view. I love plans. They bring clarity of action. They are tangible, concrete, linear — if x (action steps) then y (result). Like my vacation plans, which resulted in an immersive experience in Ireland (well, at least back in the day when we could travel). 

Plans bring a sense of certainty. Certainty that we can achieve a specific objective in a designated time frame and budget. We track our plans and course‑correct to achieve our goals if we deviate. This sense of security and predictability is so comforting. 

Strategy brings a different clarity. While plans bring clarity of action, strategy brings clarity of direction. We need both. But unlike planning, strategy does not bring certainty. Done well, strategy increases the likelihood of success, but there are no guarantees when you are creating.

When we create a strategic plan, we join two distinct words and these two opposing forces — certainty and uncertainty. Certainty of near‑term action. Confidence and clarity in direction. 

And a gap in between. 

The gap of not knowing. Of not being able to see the whole pathway from where we are to where we want to be. The gap of emergence. The gap that we must accept as inevitable, and that we trust will close over time — as we learn, adapt, create. 

Trust in that leap of faith? Really? I have tried so hard to avoid that truth. The discomfort of uncertain results feels untenable at times. I feel like I lack control. Not a big fan of that feeling. I pride myself on my ability to see, anticipate, and plan for what might emerge by mapping out various contingency plans to ensure my results. Especially in a corporate context where everyone seems to be grasping for certainty in achieving desired results, particularly financial results.

Trusting in the Gap of Emergence

And yet, I am learning to trust in this gap of emergence

Many things in my life have emerged from a clear sense of direction without the specificity of a plan that would undoubtedly take me from point A to point B. Like my business. I never planned to create the business that I run today. It emerged from clarity about long‑term direction and specificity of “next actions” in the year ahead. 

The same is true in my coaching engagements. Our first step is to get a clear sense of direction for our work. And then each coaching session is emergent. We don’t have a linear plan from beginning to end. Behavior change doesn’t work that way. What we do have is clarity of direction informing clarity of the next action. My clients experiment, learn, and adapt — and miraculously, throughout our engagement, we often create (or better said, move closer to) that desired future state. 

I believe the same is true in realizing strategic outcomes. We must accept that gap between what we believe and what we know. We balance the flexibility and optionality of direction with the specificity of action and forward momentum. When we trust in emergence, we create space for it. Instead of trying to control and resolve the uncertainty, we embrace it. 

A Strategic Plan: Clarity of Action and Direction

Strategy AND Plan. Certainty AND Uncertainty. 

A Plan = Action

Annual plans provide specificity — outlining actions (initiatives) to achieve tangible, measurable objectives in designated time frames and budgets. They provide the specificity that mobilizes and focuses teams to deliver near‑term results.

A Strategy = Direction

Clarity of strategic direction provides the why behind the areas of focus and specificity outlined. It helps people see how actions today are positioning the organization for tomorrow. It tells us what objectives matter most. This means it helps people make next‑level decisions about what to say yes to, and (more importantly) when to say NO.

Strategic Plans, Done Well, Are the Bridge

They are a distinct type of plan that cannot deliver certainty or predictability of result. But they can increase the odds of success with the benefit of robust strategic thinking. Effective strategic plans offer both certainty and uncertainty. They will have varying degrees of specificity and optionality. Specific enough to be actionable and credible, AND directional enough to be agile and emergent.

Our job as strategic leaders is to accept and balance this inherent tension:

  • directional AND specific
  • known AND unknown
  • flexible AND sustaining momentum toward that desired future state

We continue to make cascading levels of decisions that narrow the optionality of direction‑setting for the specificity of execution.  

The Process: Before You Plan, Strategize

Too often, I see strategic planning exercises that overemphasize clarity of action at the expense of clarity of direction — which can lead to many plans that aren’t truly strategic. 

Why? Clarity of direction requires jumping into the deep end of the uncertainty pool. Many leaders unconsciously avoid the discomfort of wading into unknowable futures and making those direction-setting choices because it eliminates options in favor of creating a future that they are betting on.

The quality of those strategic decisions is a function of

  • you and your team’s capacity to think strategically, and
  • your capacity to lead yourself and others through your natural discomfort and fear in the face of uncertainty.

In the face of not knowing. In the face of leaping toward an unknowable and unpredictable future. This capacity is needed more and more each day as the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world becomes our norm.

So, before you plan, strategize.

Take time to do the following:

  • Think.
  • Conceive.
  • Imagine.
  • Debate.
  • Challenge.
  • And, eventually, make bets.

Divergence is required before convergence. This is why I recommend you separate your time to strategize (diverge) from your time to plan (converge). Strategy in its most concrete form is about choices, trade‑offs, and decisions that hopefully position your business for long‑term sustainability in an envisioned market of the future. 

It requires you, as a strategist, to anticipate how customer needs and competitors will evolve, how industries might consolidate, and how you might adopt new ways to create and capture value. If you don’t have a point of view about how the future will unfold and how your business will be advantaged in that future, you don’t have a strategy. 

The Result: Strategy AND Plan

I recently partnered with an organization to create their corporate strategy. Step one — the leadership team strategized. They made an integrated set of choices about where to play in the marketplace and how to sustainably differentiate themselves from the competition based on a unique combination of capabilities. Importantly, these choices were grounded in a distinct point of view about how the market would change over their planning horizon and how to position their business for that future that they would help shape. A point of view that emerged through deep strategic thinking. 

It was on this foundation that they outlined five strategic imperatives to guide the organization. They now have clarity of direction with a robust strategic logic behind their choices. And it supports clarity of action, outlined in their annual goals and financial plan. With the gap of emergence in between. They can’t see the whole pathway from where they are to where they want to be. They embrace that gap and continue to work on the bridge, in the form of an evolving strategic plan. Step by step, refining action and specificity of direction. Holding the tension between what they know and what they believe, learning and adapting as they go — so they can transform the world through the business they are always in the process of creating.

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