I just returned from a gratifying strategic planning assignment overseas engaging participants drawn from three continents. I have some reflections that I hope will be useful to those who are involved with global strategic planning which draws input from participants from around the world. Many have said it and it will come as no surprise to most, but those of us who view the world through the lens of the urban U.S. and Western Europe often make cavalier, yet implicit assumptions about the thinking patterns of folks from places like Africa, Asia or elsewhere. I believe that the tacit, root-cause assumption is this: Everyone is speaking English and they are speaking it so well, and therefore it follows that they pretty much use the same thinking patterns that I do! Indeed, having facilitated strategic planning for Native Americans in the American Southwest, I can attest to significant cultural differences on the North American continent itself. Many of us proceed apace as if all people see things through the same lens as we do. Slow down. Curves ahead.
A key skill needed by participants in a strategic planning process is the ability to visualize and then verbalize an outcome end-state as a goal. Such a goal statement answers a question such as, “how will things be different three years from now?” What we seek in strategic planning is a freeze-frame still photo of an outcome from which we can do reverse engineering to identify the objectives and strategies that will be needed to take us from where we are now to where we want to be. Sounds straightforward enough, doesn’t it? I thought so too until one of my African participants, an extremely capable young executive who is fluent in several languages said, “Spelling out goals this way is one of the hardest things that I have ever done.”
Why was visualizing an end-state outcome so difficult? There are a variety of reasons, depending on the culture that shaped participant thinking. For example, Native Americans’ notion of time often differs from the straight-ahead linear model that is implanted in many of our beady brains. In other cultures, the idea of “freezing” an outcome at a particular point in time is especially foreign; in these instances, a “process video” or moving picture is as close as some participants can get to defining a future desired state. In other cases, the whole skill-set of mental “time travel” – taking us from how things are now to how they need to be — which underlies strategic thinking is especially foreign and difficult.
The bottom line is that the strategic planning facilitator needs to pay close attention to the fundamental perspectives and skills that are needed for effective plan development. Don’t assume that your cultural viewpoint is shared by everyone in the room. Take the extra time to ensure that everyone has the power tools and skills needed to visualize the future and describe it. As you do so, you will get as much or more than you give by way of cultural insights and new ways of looking at things. I can guarantee that it will be more than worth your while.
Recently, I was asked to review the strategic plan of a professional association. The plan had evolved over many years: With each iteration, goals and objectives were added such that the plan had become a detailed encyclopedia of all of the activities that were supposed to be performed by the organization’s staff.
There were two major problems with the plan: First, some of the activities included in the plan were not being performed; in other words, these activities were not being taken seriously, thereby detracting from the plan’s credibility. In a nutshell, staff were accountable for the pursuit of some objectives contained in the plan, but not all. But which ones? The plan had lost its value as a navigational tool – as a device for tracking progress and correcting the organization’s course.
The second problem with the plan was that the organization was insufficiently staffed to implement it, and not by a little, but by a lot! This resulted in cynicism concerning the plan as well as no small amount of staff fatigue.
Strategic planning is a process of making decisions about priorities and then setting forth serious operational plans which permit the attainment of major goals. Strategic plans should be aggressive. They should provide “stretch.” However, “stretch” should not take things to the breaking point, because, to be brief, things can and will break if stretched too far.
In making decisions about priorities, it is inevitable that a quality strategic plan will entail making decisions about what not to do, whether this means deferring a priority until a later time, or just swallowing hard and discarding one initiative in favor of another which promises greater pay-off or “goodness of fit” with where the organization wants to go.
To quote Nancy Reagan, sometimes it’s “Just Say No.” Good strategic planning helps an organization make these choices with all due diligence.
If you need help, contact us about our Strategic Futures Strategic Planning Facilitation services.
A frequent and appropriate concern in strategic planning is whether the resources needed to fund the plan are available: Is our financial plan adequately supportive of our strategic plan? Another concern is whether the human capital needed to implement the plan will be on-board and ready to go: Stated differently, is our workforce planning aligned with our strategic planning? (The financial plan and the workforce plan should be components of the strategic plan, either in the main body or as annexes).
There’s a push-pull between the development of a strategic plan and available financial and human resources. On the one hand, strategic planning which simply assumes the resource status quo can become constrained and unimaginative, tending to recite the way things are rather than the way things should be. On the other hand, a pie-in-the-sky plan quickly degenerates into a bookshelf ornament, breeding cynicism at best and fear-and-loathing at worst.
Achieving consensus concerning our resource assumptions allows us to create a workable strategic plan—doable by “stretching” ourselves to implement it. But would you want a strategic plan that wasn’t ambitious? You may be lucky and have the financial and human resources needed to create an ideal strategic plan right from the start, but most of us do ambitious strategic planning with the proviso that the plan will need to be adjusted iteratively in view of real financial and human resource constraints. Getting this right is a balancing act: Oddly, we must sometimes put the cart before the horse for a time before we can correctly position the cart after the horse. This process may need to be repeated once or twice until goodness of fit among all plan components has been achieved.
A comprehensive strategic plan aligns strategy with both systems and structure, organized solidly around vision, mission, goals and objectives. Systems refer not only to electronic systems but to defined core processes. Structure refers not only to the organizational configuration of talent, but also to needed capabilities and capacities. Capabilities are the skill sets and talent competency levels needed to implement the plan and perform the work. Capacities are the required amount of a given capability at relevant levels of mastery, expressed in person-hours or person-years. Correct specification of capabilities and capacities is central to effective workforce planning.
Effective workforce planning answers this pivotal question: If the strategic plan expresses what we intend to accomplish, then what is the mix of present and future talent that will be required to implement the plan and how will this mix be cultivated? Peter Drucker said it best, “Plans are nothing until they degenerate into work.”
If we are going to have a plan, then we’d best have the talent needed to implement it successfully. Otherwise, a strategic plan without a workforce plan could end up being just a cart without a horse.