Every year a stream of nameless, faceless executives withdraw from their offices and gather somewhere offsite as part of a long-standing corporate ritual called “strategic planning.” The ritual follows a predictable series of steps: review last year’s plan, conduct a SWOT or other type of analysis, and decide on objectives for the new year. Most of the time, when the ritual is over, a book-length strategic plan gets circulated back to those who weren’t a part of the ritual to study and attempt to implement.
As these strategic plans are developed, the most common action is to examine last year’s plan and then adjust goals for the new year based on last year’s performance. The strategic planning process is turned into a process of addition – last year’s sales PLUS 5 percent. This process produces beautiful strategic plan documents, filled with graphs and charts, that will likely never get examined. Instead, when the executives gather again the following year, much of the initial discussion will center around what objectives weren’t met and why. In the end, new objectives along the same lines as last year will result and the cycle will continue just as unsuccessfully as the year before.
The “strategy as addition” mentality is persistent, despite it’s lack of effectiveness. It persists because the reality of strategy is much harder to engage with. At its core, strategy is about choice. Strategic planning is about looking at trends in the environment, as well as past results, and making deliberate choices about what activities to begin, what activities to continue, and what activities must be ceased. These choices are hard to make. No one wants to stare down a fork in the road at two unknown paths and be forced to choose. No one wants to be the one blamed for making the wrong choice.
But not choosing is a choice – it’s a choice for the status quo. It’s a choice that says, even though the environment has changed, we choose to pursue the same activities but set our sales goals a little higher. That choice may be a comfortable one to make, but it’s outcome is as unknown as the other possible paths.
Strategy as choice is uncomfortable – which is probably why discomfort is the key signal that you and your team are truly engaged in strategic planning.