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Strategic Planning, Lies and Making it Fun

February 05, 2014

Two very different articles, crossed my desk recently, both have a bearing on how to approach strategic planning, and even more so when you get around to implementing strategy and making it real.  The second one is a research study out of Queens University in Canada following the effects of 22 women exercising.  You’re probably thinking, “What, I thought this blog was on strategy?”  It is.  And I’ll explain in a minute, but let’s begin by looking at an article coming out of Harvard around the topic of strategy and lies.

Roger Martin wrote an articlein this month’s Harvard Review entitled “The Big Lie of Strategic Planning.”  In it he suggests that once you start creating a plan for your strategy, most organizations lose touch with the fact that the strategy is just a bet on how best to reach objectives in a world that is no small part beyond one’s control.  The lie, in effect, is that a plan, a budget, a set of specific action steps suggests controls and predictability that are not true, and in fact the plan, which is supposedly representing a strategy, is often a lie, as it more accurately represents what the organization deems it can afford to do… not what is necessary to reach the “strategic” objectives.

Actually he could have had more fun with this one.  Let’s help him out.  Quick, if you had to answer how strategic planning is a lie, what would you say?  Pretend you’re on a game show and you need to pick from the top 5 most common lies to win $25,000… and your answer is?

Here’s some of mine.

1. Strategic planning is a lie, because it suggests that the plan is a response to the responsibility of the strategy to identify exactly how to reach the objective, typically either growth or fulfillment of a mission.  When in fact most strategic plans are a list of prioritized activities.  Not a well articulated plan defining exactly how to get to that target.  It can be very good stuff, it just doesn’t line up directly with the assumption about how to succeed, because that isn’t clearly articulated, nor are the assumptions inherent in any guess about the future.  So take a look at your strategy, and decide how much strategy is in it, or is it primarily a prioritized list… not that that’s a bad thing, it’s just not a strategy guided, strategy testing plan.

2. Strategic planning is a lie, because it implies that it is driving work behavior, when in most cases it isn’t.  What if at the top of most strategic plans there was a qualifier that said in effect, “We present this plan knowing that most people will in many ways deem it irrelevant to how they work each day, and in fact will have little sense of what the plan is or how it effects their prioritization, consequently we are defining this strategic plan as a strategic wish, a comfort activity for our top management team and a reporting burden for their direct reports.”  That would probably be a more honest, wouldn’t it?

3.  Strategic planning is a lie because it implies that by constructing and implementing a plan, the members of the organization will work more strategically, when in fact most of them will work with their head down, reacting to the requests and demands of the day. Getting people to work strategically, to work smart, to be outcome oriented, gets driven by active leadership and activities that reinforce that behavior, not by having a strategic plan written down somewhere.

Ok, I may have touched on yours, or perhaps you came up with an entirely different list.  Or maybe you’re thinking I’m being too negative and you’re waiting for the 2nd half and hoping I would get on with it.  So about that second article I said had a direct bearing on strategic planning.

Ok, the article  I want to reference is  Applied Physiology Nutrition Metab. 2012 Sep 20.  In it Canadian researchers at Queen’s University tested and proved that 4 minute workouts were just as effective in cardio conditioning as running for 30 minutes on the treadmill.  The 4 minute workouts were even better at developing muscles and strength, and get this, the short workout group reported that it was more fun.

There’s three keys here for you to consider when it comes to strategic planning.  Do you see it?  Let’s go over it together, it’s pretty cool, but just in case you’re thinking I’m way off base and run afoul of too much late night coffee, let me explain.

1. The first key is that this was research.  They tested two different approaches.  They found out something worked, that probably most of us, including me, wouldn’t have expected.  Guess what?  Think of your strategy as a big research project.  You’re testing assumptions.  That means you need to measure results.  That means you may want to test more than one approach, the results may surprise you.  So ask any strategy the question, “What exactly are we testing, and how will we measure it and know if we are on the right track, e.g. getting results?”  Construct and treat your strategy as a research project and you’ll be miles ahead.

2. The second key is that these groups worked out 4 times a week.  What do you think would have happened if they worked out once a month, or once a quarter, which is how often a lot of organizations re-look at their strategy?  Not much would have happened, right?  You need frequency, you need people to get regularly engaged.  And here’s where an important part comes in.  You need to measure.  Not just to verify results, but because measuring is critical for engagement for most people.

Think how many people would play monopoly if no one kept track of the money.  Who play’s baseball competitively without counting the number of runs that cross the base?  Don’t measure and we’re just practicing, we’re not really playing.  So embed measuring results, keeping time and other heads-up activities as fundamental parts of your strategy.  Strategy without frequent activity and measurements is as dead as the Queen’s University project would have been without those two criteria.

3. Here’s the final one, and this partly bears on gamification researchThings go much better, including implementing strategy, if you’re having fun.  So make it fun.  That’s right, use gaming research to help you make it fun.  Keep score, make it possible for people to see the direct effects of “their moves”, make pay-offs tangible, visible; make it competitive, let people know who’s ahead, who isn’t, you get the idea… then again maybe it’s got your head swimming.  Either way it’s all good, especially if you apply it this year.

Bottom Line: 
Strategic planning suggests a level of certainty and rigor in thinking that are often not accurate, e.g. a lie.  Fundamentally strategy is a bet against the future, resting on a set of potentially wobbly assumptions.  Believe anything else and it’s a lie.  But don’t give up hope, there are a number of things you can do to make your strategic planning and implementation more engaging, accurate and fun.  If this blog resonates with you, and you need to transform your strategy planning and execution process… give us a call at 877 487-3001 and, like the Queens University research project, let’s transform your strategy planning and execution into something brief and powerful.

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