Monday, January 23, 2012

Stop Calling It Strategic Planning

image source
So I'm working my way through Humanize, and like most everyone else, I'm really enjoying it. This will probably be the first of several posts describing the thoughts it provokes for how I am and should be running my association.

But dare I start with the endlessly controversial subject of strategic planning? I've heard Jamie Notter (and others) decry this staple of association board meetings as a tool whose time has come and gone, but it wasn't until I read the treatment of it in Humanize that I really understood what he was talking about.

And it's convinced me of one undisputable fact. I need to stop calling what my association does strategic planning.

Because it isn't. Humanize (the book was co-authored by Jamie and Maddie Grant, so it doesn't seem right to attribute anything it says to only one of them) says strategic planning is based on three faulty assumptions:

1. You can predict the future.
2. You can separate thought from action.
3. You can script the formation of strategy.

Since we don't make those assumptions, and since strategic planning is such a derogatory term, why should I persist in using it? To illustrate, let's tackle the honest truths of traditional strategic planning one at a time.

You Can't Predict the Future

...strategic planning is based on the assumption that you can truly predetermine outcomes in this world. It is predicated on the notion that we can sit here, at point A in time, and devise a plan to get us through to point B in the future, knowing enough about how the future is going to play out to make the correct strategic choices today.

That's what Humanize says, and Humanize is right. That is the assumption that two-day strategic planning retreats have when they are organized to create a three-to-five year plan for an organization.

Except we don't have a three-to-five year plan. We have a mission and a set of strategic priorities, and every time our leadership comes together--not just at their annual retreat, but every time--we ask what we know about our current position that would warrant a change to either of these items. Sometimes nothing changes. Sometimes everything changes. Sometimes the things that changed the time before get changed back again. We respect the idea that we can't know what's going to happen in the future. It's hard enough just figuring out what's happening now, and that's where we keep our attention focused. What's happening now and what does that tell us about where the association should go next.

You Can't Separate Thought from Action

This is where our illustrious leaders head off to their strategy retreats to develop their carefully laid plan that is then distributed to the worker bees for flawless execution.

My current board chair has taken to using a different metaphor when talking to people about their respective roles in the association. There are no queen bees and worker bees. We are all both directors and actors in the play.

Granted, different decisions get made in different parts of the association, but strategy and tactics must be intertwined if either is going to be successful. Those who create the ideas have a responsibility in helping to implement them, and those who coordinate programs have an obligation to inform our strategy with their practical experience. For us, the challenge is less one of process and design and more one about finding the human resources and the time in everyone's busy schedules to communicate enough to keep strategy and tactics aligned throughout our organization.

You Can't Script the Formation of Strategy

There is no research that supports the idea that elaborate planning processes work any better than the messy, informal processes that have also been used to create strategy.

This is the point that Humanize and I agree on the most when it comes to strategic planning, and what really tipped me over the edge in my resolution to stop calling what we do strategic planning.

To even call what we do a process is most likely an exaggeration. There is no real process--at least not a single process that we have consistently followed for as much as two years in a row. It's messy, and constantly evolving, with only a handful of guidelines to afford enough structure to keep people grounded and more or less understanding what we're trying to do. I've never written these guidelines down before, and maybe I should. Off the top of my head, they would look something like this:

1. We need a mission that everyone can support, that defines why we exist, and around which we will dedicate our resources and activity.

2. We need a vision for the future, a single or set of envisioned states of being, that inspires people and keeps us stretching to achieve more than we might have thought possible.

3. We need to develop a set of programs that are clearly aligned with our mission and which are capable of moving us towards our vision. These programs should both serve the interests of our members and engage them in the process of their development and execution.

4. We need to develop and employ the appropriate resources so that the programs have the best chance of success.

5. We need to monitor the progress of the programs and evaluate their impact on our mission and their ability to move us closer to our vision. We must make adjustments based on this evaluation, striving for a cycle of continuous improvement.

These guidelines frame the conversation my association has on an on-going basis. Not just at the board retreat, but at every board meeting, on committee conference calls, and day-by-day with the staff. As long as we stay true to these concepts then everything else is up for negotiation and change.

So what should I call this thing that we do if Humanize has convinced me to stop calling it strategic planning?

I have one idealized suggestion. Association management. It is nothing less than the most fundamental value our business model is capable of creating, and no one should shy away from it.


  1. Eric,

    Great post. You really nailed the problems with traditional strategic planning, building on Jamie and Maddie's brief points.

    I'd take issue with your conclusion, however, since there is another approach. Perhaps we could keep calling this key leadership competency "strategic planning," but redefine the term to be more participatory, flexible, outcomes-focused, and based upon systems thinking.

    For example, we just released our Strategic Plan for 2012 and Beyond (at that was built upon all of those principles. The key elements of the plan are a small set of clear outcomes-focused goals, supporting our vision, mission, and core values. The Board arrived at these by broadly sounding out our members, staff, and volunteers. The plan is regularly updated, at least annually. Engagement throughout the process (both absorbing good ideas into the plan and sharing its aspirations with everyone involved) is a hallmark.

    We don't claim to have all the answers here, and we are constantly looking to improve the activity we proudly call "strategic planning."

  2. Great post Eric. On the "what you call it" point, I'm not sure we need agreement. I think people should be able to call it what they want. I do think there are implications, though, and we should choose our language carefully. For example, by taking "strategy" or "strategic" out of it, you run the risk of people losing sight of the critical notion of strategic choices. On the other hand, if you stick with "strategic planning" you often get people backing into a process view of the whole thing without realizing it. I don't think we'll ever find the perfect term, and I actually support BOTH of you in calling it different things. I will be eager, by the way, Eric, to hear your reaction to the section in chapter 8 on Collaborative Strategy.

  3. Hey Eric -

    First of all, I'm jealous! Humanize has been sitting on my desk for a few weeks now. You've convinced that it's my next read on the plane this Sunday! :)

    I certainly feel all those tensions when it comes to strategic planning and my association. That said, I actually love our strategic plan. I think of it more as our strategic direction. It's specific enough to let us know where we are going, but gives us the freedom to re-eavluate how we're going to get there frequently. And every year, our senior staff re-evaluate their workplans as they related to the strategic plan, which is fantastic.

    That said, I also hate the idea that a strategic plan can predict the future. I can barely remember the past most days, so I find that particularly daunting!

  4. Hi Eric- Thanks for taking the time to document the guidelines you use! I may just repurpose them :) It can be annoying or sometimes awkward, but I have found it to be incredibly valuable, ultimately, to stop conversations (especially ones taking place at a "strategic planning" retreat) and say, "X is our mission. X is our vision for 10 years from now. How are the things we are talking about right now going to get us there?" Being explicit helps. Thanks for sharing!

  5. @Robert
    That's a really slick way to present your plan and the activities and accomplishments it supports to your members and to the world. Congratulations! But I wonder, how much more powerful would it be if you dropped the term "strategic plan" altogether? It wouldn't say to the viewer: "This is the strategic plan of the American Chemical Society." It would say: "This IS the American Chemical Society."

    To that point, why do we need to call "it" anything at all? Why can't it just "be" what associations do?

    If you plan to finish Humanize in one plane ride, I hope you're flying to Australia. It is a very good read, but it is not a quick one!

    Repurpose away!

  6. Eric, nice post. Just because most associations aren't good at strategic planning, does not mean it needs a name change. Members are used to the term and if you follow the guidelines you suggest, it does not matter what you call it.

    I call it strategic business planning. I also use guidelines similar to the ones you posted. Our plan drives us forward, focuses our member's limited attention span on a few important things, and generates organizational confidence because members know we have a plan.

    For me, it is just easier to call it strategic planning because members recognize the term. I'd rather focus their attention on getting stuff done than on learning a new term.

    I have not read Humanize, but will be soon. Thanks for putting the book on my radar.

  7. @Dave
    "For me, it is just easier to call it strategic planning because members recognize the term. I'd rather focus their attention on getting stuff done than on learning a new term."
    There's a lot to be said for that approach, Dave. But again, I have to question why we need to call it anything at all. Which would you prefer, a board that enters strategic planning mode, or a board that is always in strategic planning mode?

  8. A budget is no different than a strategic plan in the sense that it defines the predicted future money situation of the organization, but you still call a budget a budget. The main issue is not the name of the process but the usefulness of it. If the plan claims to foresee the future and makes unrealistic goals as a result, then it is not very useful. A truly strategic plan is based on the same principles as a budget - an evidence-based prediction of what might happen and how the organization could respond. If the plan is never adjusted as situations change, it is not a dynamic and organic document. My opinion is that a strategic plan should be both dynamic and organic in order to be effective.

  9. @Anonymous
    "My opinion is that a strategic plan should be both dynamic and organic in order to be effective."
    Agreed. It has to been in an almost constant state of flux, which removes the concept that it is a process that is engaged in only at discrete times. It is instead a constant activity, a state of being, not a process that is adopted when it is needed.

  10. I posted the following in an online classroom discussion:

    Today, I came across a blog post entitled, “Stop Calling it Strategic Planning” (Lanke, 2012). The author takes issue with three claims he attributes to the exercise:

    • that it “can predict the future”
    • that it “separate[s] thought from action”
    • that it is “scripted.”

    He declares, further, that “there is no research that supports the idea that elaborate planning processes work any better than the messy, informal processes that have also been used to create strategy.”

    I understand why organizational leaders (and stakeholders) can object to formalized strategic planning. There is no question about the tension between endless planning and doing, for example, or between enforced rigidity and the need for flexible thought and action. Mackay (2004) makes a similar point about what I would call “snapshot” planning’s inability to cope with radical, continuous change. Just the same, I think Lanke’s objections amount to little more than a semantic argument, couched in a broad-brush critique implying that strategic planning must always embody its worst potential features.

    First, fair-minded strategic planning ought not and does not necessarily claim to predict the future. Rather, starting from a foundation of mission and vision (which Lanke embraces), it considers what the future could entail and how the organization might plan for eventualities and influence them.

    Second, Lanke apparently believes that strategic planning necessarily separates the planners (“thought”) from the implementers (“action”). He makes the outstanding point that there ought to be a two-way street in which planners have responsibility for implementation and implementers bring real experience to bear on planning. In rejecting the term “strategic planning,” he fails to explain why it ipso facto creates the artificial barriers he rightly decries.

    Third, Lanke suggests that strategic planning is by nature rigid (“scripted”) process, while real-world organizations engage in ongoing, evolving and “messy” discussions. Again, I think he has mischaracterized planning as necessarily rigid.

    Fourth, though one might argue for against various forms of strategic planning in various circumstances, to claim that no empirical research supports a relationship between planning and organizational performance is ludicrous. Again, one may disagree with research methodologies and conclusions drawn, but a search in the University of Maryland library databases on (“strategic planning” AND “efficacy”) shows 1,128 hits. I cannot believe that none of these hits show that planning is helpful to organizations.

    Coming from the nonprofit world, Lanke suggests that we replace “strategic planning” with the term “association management.” Extrapolating to all organizations, Fred David (2011) would simply call it “strategic management” (p. 4). The point is that planning is an ongoing exercise – part of day-to-day life and encompassing constant monitoring and adjustment. What term we use to describe this is unimportant, except to the extent that the folks we are asking to engage in it know it by the name that Lanke wants to jettison.

    I am no fan of rigid obsession with scripted formulas for determining organizational direction. I just cannot see, however, how any human endeavor can be successful for any period of time without engaging in the processes under the “strategic planning” rubric. Ironically, it appears that Lanke agrees completely with this notion. He just hates the name.


    David, F. R. (2011). Strategic management: Concepts and cases. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

    Lanke, E. (2012, January 23). Stop calling it strategic planning. Retrieved from:

    Mackay, J. (2004, May) Does strategic planning still fit in the 2000s? Retrived from:

  11. Keith,

    Thank you so much for your studious review of the points I attempted to make in my post, but I fear you have misread some key elements of it.

    Most of the quotes and statements you attribute to me did not, in fact, originate with me. The claims that strategic planning can't predict the future, can't separate thought from action, can't script the formation of strategy, etc., are not mine, but come from the authors of Humanize, Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant. If that's not clear in my post, I apologize for the confusion.

    My intention was not to defend those assertions, but to state that if the converse of those assertions are coming to define strategic planning in the association world (i.e., it can predict the future, can separate thought from action, can script the formation of strategy), then it may be best for me to rename the practices my association employs as something other than "strategic planning," in order to separate ourselves from the misperception that we think we can predict the future, can separate thought from action, can script the formation of strategy, etc.

    In fishing around for an appropriate term to label what we do, based on the five guidelines described in my post, I provocatively suggested doing away with a separate term altogether. Following those guidelines is not, in the ideal, a process that we engage in only from time to time. It is fundamentally what we do, continually, day-in and day-out. It may therefore be best for our profession, "association management," to redefine itself and its essential practice along those lines.

    I'm curious about any discussion that took place in your online classroom. Is there any way for me to get access to that?

    1. Comment from my professor, John Nicolay:

      He is only partially correct. But the fault, dear Brutus, lies not within the stars, but within ourselves. Yes, strategic planning is often "by the seat of the pants". But to suggest that planning cannot be productive tells me that we run out of gas before bothering to fill the tank. There are predicators. In my lecture notes I make mention of how companies can deal with so-called unanticipated events. Bryson writes in his text Strategic Planning for Non-Profits that the dedication to planning is not the thoughtless, uninspired process your blogger laments. Indeed, the very act of planning faithfully and with structured systematic measures of success or failure conditions executives to be tuned into their company's purpose. Now perhaps it all seems to obvious to many. But what we need to differentiate is operational planning from strategic planning. The evidence does support the idea that few middling companies do it at all. But I suppose they make no pretense at saying they do. Successful companies? I would turn him on his head here.

  12. Hi Eric!

    Thanks for your response! As I suspected, you and I are not in disagreement at all (or very much). Unfortunately, my classroom post has not proven to be particularly provocative: the two comments I have received don't shed any further light. There is no way to give you access, but I'll paste the somewhat more interesting one here:

    "I agree with you ... plans are necessary, as long as they are not expected to be rigidly adhered to once the process of enacting them begins. Think of business strategic plans like military strategic plans ... to paraphrase Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, "no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy."


    The classroom I am in is at University of Maryland/University College, where I am pursuing a (2nd) masters in technology management and the class is called "Information Technology, the CIO, and Organizational Transformation."

    By the way, this is my first time accessing your blog and thoughts (thanks to Amy Sample Ward for sending it along to NTENers). I think I'll become a regular reader. If you would like to establish direct contact with me, please find me on LinkedIn.


  13. Awesome comments!

    Let me add that those three basic "flaws" of strategic planning didn't even come from Maddie and me. That is the work of Management Professor Henry Mintzberg, and his book (published decades ago!) titled "The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning." He cites the real research behind those claims, and I think it is compelling.

    Keith: I would LOVE to send a copy of our book to whoever is teaching your class! Humanize is precisely about how social media (and the principles behind it) are transforming organizations. Email me at jamienotter at gmail dot com

  14. Keith: Sorry you didn't get anything more provocative going with your class. Although, I do like the quote from von Moltke. I tell my direct reports something similar when it comes to managing associations. Two rules: (1) Plan everything you can with as much specificity as possible; (2) Be ready to abandon your plan at a moment's notice.

    Jamie: Thanks for chiming in.

  15. I'm torn between whether or not we need to call it anything ... in the spirit of The Artist Formerly Known as Prince who once again is known as Prince. Labels and language help create culture and shared meaning/understanding.

    I'm grown fond of this succinct strategy framework articular in Good Strategy/Bad Strategy by Richard P. Rumelt

    "Strategy requires three steps:
    1. Figure out the nature of the business challenge and the desired results.
    2. Design a guiding policy that produces an advantage and the intended results.
    3. Create a set of coordinated actions to carry out that policy.

    In my former life as an association exec, both orgs I helped lead had an incredibly understanding of core purpose and values that drove our work far more than most association strategic plans. That understanding was complemented by an ongoing scanning process that helped us discover what we needed to attend to strategically to achieve our core purpose and vision. It wasn't perfect, but it was far simpler and I believe produced better results more consistently. It's the approach I use now in my consulting and facilitation.

  16. Jeffrey: Thanks for throwing in your perspective. I agree that labels and language help create culture and shared meaning/understanding. Maybe that's why it occurred to me that we should stop thinking of strategic planning (and here I mean the good kind, the kind where we translating vision into productive action in our changing environment) as something we DO and rather rebrand it as something we ARE. Successful organizations don't DO strategic planning. They ARE strategic planning.

    Keith: Thanks for posting the comment from your professor. But again, please don't misconstrue me. I am not saying that planning is always bad. I am saying that if it is becoming a consensus opinion that strategic planning is ineffective, and if that same consensus opinion defines strategic planning as something different than what my organization currently engages in, then I would rather call what I'm doing something else than try to defend the term strategic planning.

  17. Eric--

    I do indeed get where you're coming from and don't disagree at all -- don't allow a discredited brand distract you from the positive work you're doing. I particularly like your formulation of BEING about (for want of a better term) strategic planning, rather than having it be a time-bounded action (something one DOES). This conveys the sense of constant, continuous thinking.

    One concept Prof. John Nicolay introduced into our classroom conversation about CIO role, alignment, and strategic planning is "mindfulness." This seems fundamental to me: what he (and you and I and Jamie, I presume) is talking about is thinking and acting with purpose, rather than by accident. There is room for serendipity and even randomness in mindful "planning." (Think of Jackson Pollack, whose splotches of paint may be individually random, but which are part of a holistic vision that did not come about by accident.)

    I don't think I'm misconstruing you at this point (tell me if you still think I am). This conversation is fascinating!

    And, no worries about redeeming your reputation with my professor. I have posted your response back to the classroom. Of course, if you feel strongly about it, I can put you in direct touch with him.


  18. Eric -- Great post; made me grin and frown and sigh heavily. I've posted before on the controversy around "strategic planning" at the aLearning Blog and even then the consensus seemed to be that nobody wants their organization to run willy-nilly into the future without some sense of direction. At the same time, we don't want to have such a deep path carved in that direction that we can't quickly cut a new one if a tornado comes our way.

    So back then, when the debate raged, we all seemed to agree that calling what we do "strategic planning" was at the heart of the issue, not what comes of it.

    I said it then, and I'll say it again -- it's much ado about nothing. Call it "strategic planning" or don't, if your members cringe at the sound of those words, but don't neglect to think about what your organization needs and how to address those needs, over time.

    Would you jump into your car to go someplace you haven't been before without a map/GPS, without your prescription eyeglasses, in the fog, trusting that your instinct will get you where you want to go?

  19. Keith: No need to put me in direct contact with your professor, but thanks for the offer. The exchange of ideas here has been satisfying enough.

    Ellen: Thanks for sharing your thoughts. If it were truly an argument about what to call something, then I would agree, it is much ado about nothing. But it's the opposite problem. Not multiple terms for the same thing, but the same term for multiple things. Calling it strategic planning is just fine, if it's mindful (thanks, Keith, for that one) and flexible and realistic about the future. But if it's not, and you call it strategic planning anyway, then you get into the kind of misconceptions that have underlain this whole conversation.

  20. I didn't read all the blogs to see if there were suggestions for a name change. In my coaching of a Head of Strategy I suggested something like, "Coordinator of Possibilities" The idea being to lower barriers to collaboration, set realistic expectations and reduce the fear of turf invasion.