Should strategic planning be re-imagined?

By Heather Rast/Tree Full of Owls

Strategic planning. For many companies, it’s an initiative tackled on an annual basis. It’s a project for a team of top-level executives wielding dry erase markers, having spent hours pouring over a big PowerPoint deck, followed by a lot of earnest discussion about getting to root cause, focusing team efforts and charging people to get big-picture things done while managing daily obligations.

Well, okay. That may work. Maybe.

In my experience, strategic planning can be an endeavor of monolithic proportions, one requiring a lot of preparation by a select group of leaders, pulling them away from the daily workflow for (usually critical) periods at a time. When the planning junket ends, an air of dissatisfaction or even frustration may linger. Maybe the group didn’t work through all of the agenda items. Maybe there were significant differences of opinion on a critical issue, causing friction. Maybe people couldn’t stay on task, resulting in wasted time and mental energy. Maybe the group once again outlined lofty objectives and expectations, but skipped over goal-setting, defining success metrics, and drilling down into specific tactics. Could be that too many aspirational priorities were deemed crucial, a move that can bottleneck progress even while it aims to incite action.

Misfires happen in business. If yours is challenged to make real advancements while still maintaining the daily grind, the problem may be in your approach. You might want to re-imagine it.

Strategy is a word that carries a lot of weight. But like the high school star lineman turned soft, it’s really not as formidable as we often make it in our minds. It shouldn’t be something only a select few think about while the masses – those actually touching the product, administering the service, or assisting the customer – are discounted or excluded.

Two things happen when planning unfolds as described in the first paragraph. First, it’s almost always too unwieldy for anyone to actually implement (assuming the group can target changes that lay within reach). So the plan sits on a shelf until the next fiscal, laying over morale like a wet blanket and predisposing folks’ attitudes the next go-around.

Second, the plans lack the potentially significant influence of middle managers and rank-and-file staff. The people charged with handling systems, coordinating projects, ensuring the satisfaction of customers, executing orders, and shipping stuff. The people that actually know enough about what goes on to actually write the TPS reports.

Prolific author and speaker Seth Godin talks frequently about the spread of ideas, and points to our arcane business processes like the annual strategic planning-fest as a hindrance to achieving real success in business. The process is clumsy, inefficient, and we’ve gone accustomed to it failing. The desentization makes it easier to abstain from holding ourselves accountable for outcomes.

Another, potentially more-effective approach to getting high-impact things accomplished may be an iterative process like scrum. Scrum, a form of agile development sometimes used by software development companies, is a method centered on small cross-functional teams working together throughout the year. Teams capture the gamut of things that need accomplishing, then elect which two to four will garner their focus through the end of the project cycle. Depending on your business (and even your staff size), the project cycle may be two weeks or four weeks, with the expectation that whatever gets selected at kick-off must be in place (not necessarily perfect) at cycle end. In short, do what you set out to do.

The scrum process re-trains employees to bite off pieces of work right-sized for chewing. Meaning, overarching strategic initiatives actually get in the hopper alongside daily work. Because the teams are comprised of people from a variety of functions with varying degrees of experience and hierarchy, unique points of view – instead of myopia – drive discussion that determines the merit of each task under evaluation. This iterative modality teaches people that incremental progress is attainable, and it allows for the kind of field testing that can lead to next-stage improvements.

Another valuable benefit of breaking strategic organizational work down and making it the responsibility of every employee regardless of salary: when companies involve The People – their hearts and minds – necessary to get things done, big things happen:  things actually get done.

Is it time for strategic planning to be re-imagined at your business? Maybe, if you’d like greater sense of ownership shared by all. Or internal transparency in the things the company deems important. Or perhaps even inspired teamwork.

Heather Rast is principal of Insights & Ingenuity, a digital marketing company in the Cedar Rapids area. Learn more at