Dennis D. McDonald (ddmcd@outlook.com) is an independent consultant located in Alexandria Virginia. His services and capabilities are described here. Application areas include project, program, and data management; market assessment, digital strategy, and program planning; change and content management; social media; and, technology adoption. Follow him on Google+. He also publishes on CTOvision.com and aNewDomain.

How To Avoid Common Strategic Planning Mistakes

How To Avoid Common Strategic Planning Mistakes

By Dennis D. McDonald

Published June 17, 2008

For the past few months one of the most popular posts on my blog has been A Short Definition of “Strategic Planning.”

I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because the term “short definition” is in the title. Why read a “long definition” if a “short definition” is available?

Maybe it’s because Spring is the time of the year when thoughts turn to strategic planning. (I have noticed that the post usually shows up on the first page of a Google search for the term definition of strategic planning, so that probably explains a lot of the popularity.)

While I am a firm believer in the value of strategic planning, I also think there are some common mistakes that people make in connection with it. I discuss some of these below. 

Who owns the process?

One mistake has to do with how a strategic planning project is conducted. As noted elsewhere, management shouldn’t assign staff or hire a consultant to “go away and create a plan” if management isn’t going to be involved. 

A strategic planning process should involve both executive management as well as the people who will be putting the strategic planning into effect. Without that type of involvement and the “buy in” it helps generate, a strategic planning process has a real danger of ending up as a bound three ring binder gathering dust on someone’s shelf. I’ve seen that happen before and it’s a waste of time and money. People need to be involved.

Don’t stop before implementation.

Another mistake is not to make the transition from plan into action. It’s one thing to identify strategic business goals and target metrics such as revenue or customer growth, sales, or some other strategically defined numeric target. It’s another thing to actually roll up your sleeves and figure out what needs to be done to make things happen – and then to do them.

If you don’t include an “action step” in the process where you prioritize and talk realistically about moving or allocating schedule and resource requirements, nothing is going to happen. You need to move from goals and objectives, to concrete plans, to actual implementation of initiatives that involve real change.

Don’t let the process become an excuse for temporary inaction.

One problem I’ve seen arise is that departments or functions that are not directly involved with the planning put their own decision making “on hold” while the plan is “under development.” You might hear someone say, “Oh, we can’t do anything about that until the strategic plan is finished.”

A related problem is that other departments or functions can’t put their own planning on hold. “We can’t wait to do X till the plan comes out – we’re already in our budget cycle and if we don’t move now we’ll lose our funding!”

Remember – they call it “strategic” for a reason. The plan should convincingly describe how what you do now will impact the future. The plan should also recognize how different departments and functions are impacted and how this might result in necessary changes.

Don’t hide the process “behind closed doors.”

Whether you think of strategic planning as a dedicated project with a beginning, middle, and end, or as a process that is permanent and ongoing, it needs to be managed collaboratively.  By that I mean that many people may be involved from different parts and levels of the organization. They all need to understand something about the process and what it’s trying to accomplish.

Partly this involvement is necessary to obtain “buy-in” from the different “stakeholders” spread throughout the organization. (This may also involve key players outside the organization as well, such as suppliers, customers, and members.) For the process and its results to have credibility, people need to understand what’s going on and how their own contributions and needs are being considered.

I’m also coming to believe that collaboration should be a key element in a strategic planning process. People shouldn’t just be surveyed for their input, they should also feel an involvement and sense of ownership over the process. This collaboration should not just be limited in a discrete set of time bounded tasks but should, if possible, extend throughout the duration of the process.

One way to accomplish this sense of collaboration, regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn, is that the tools of social media and social networking can be used in support of the strategic planning process. Examples are securely managed blogs, wikis, and discussion forums.

Use of collaborative tools will help make the process more open and transparent. This doesn’t mean, of course, that sensitive, personal, or competitive information should be openly published and discussed. But it does mean that strategic planners should use modern media to involve more people in discussions of where the organization is going and how it should get there.

Copyright (c) 2008 by Dennis D. McDonald

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