As I write this in mid-November, a great majority of organizations are engaged in the curious annual ritual known as “strategic planning” — the often rote process by which forecasts are honed, spreadsheets cells populated, templates turned into documents designed to guide a year’s worth of activity. If this sounds like a familiar grind for your organization, I’m here to tell you: You’re wasting your time.
You don’t need a strategy if you intend to spend the next 12 months (or, heaven forbid, 12 years) doing just a bit more of the same things you’ve done the prior 12. And if this is the direction you’ve chosen after spending hours eyeball-deep in planning documents, then you not only don’t need a strategy. You don’t actually have one.
This isn’t to say that you don’t have a plan. You probably do, even if it’s not a very good one. A plan to grow the business by 10%. A plan to show measurable, if slight, improvements in how you serve the markets you already serve, or maybe eek into a close adjacency without putting too much stress on your people or your profitability. A plan to bake a bit more efficiency into systems and structures you’d rather not change, or keep your margins from spiraling further toward zero (I once worked with a client for whom “maintain margins” was the — not a, the — primary objective for their upcoming 12-months).
But strategy, you see, that’s quite a different matter. Strategy is all about change. If your strategy doesn’t cause your organization and the people in it to believe something different about the business and behave differently in carrying out their business, then I”d argue you don’t really have a strategy at all. Properly done, strategy moves an organization from where it is today to where it wants to be tomorrow. To a different (ideally better, preferred) place it might not reach if it weren’t for the hard work of a well-defined strategy.
Now, you might argue back that change isn’t necessarily a condition of strategy, but a characteristic of innovation or the outcome of a well-designed change management process. If so, point me to an effective business strategy that does not have innovation as a key component. Find me that one company that boldly refuses to innovate; one that caresnot a bit about exploring new ways to better serve customer needs. Sure, in practice many companies fail to do either of these things, but that failure isn’t a failure of strategy so much as an inability to execute. Point me toward an organization that views change management as the end rather than the means, and I’ll show you a tail wagging a dog. Because here is an interesting corollary: Strategy is change but not all change is strategy. Change for the sake of change, change without focus, change without prioritization or choice is no more a strategy than a default decision to do things the same way again for yet another year in your company’s lifecycle. That is: Strategy is choice as much as it is change — a fact that too many companies forget when creating a cover-all-the-bases-and-throw-in-the-kitchen-sink annual plan.
This year, use your strategic planning process the way the Lords of Strategy intended: To change the things you do so that you can change the results you achieve.