Is incomplete planning the best planning?

As I work on a multi-year vision document this morning, I am again struck with the realization that there are two very different concepts of what organizational strategic planning should be.

One idea suggests that an organization should carefully map out a detailed five to ten year plan, with specific and numerous objectives, tactics and action items.  The corresponding management principle is to work methodically through the plan, measure and tweak along the way, complete a formal review of the plan at year five, and extend the plan out for the next five-year horizon.  This approach can be summed up in the well-known phrase “plan the work, and then work the plan”.

Another idea suggests that an organization should identify a handful of critical priorities for the next 1-3 years, associate measurable goals with each priority, and describe just a few critical action items.  The corresponding management principle is to minimize the documentation, enable and empower employees to make decisions along the way, and quickly adapt the plan and strategies on an ongoing basis as new challenges and opportunities arise.  This approach can be summed up with well-known catch-words such as “nimble”, “agile”, and “responsive”.

There are, of course, advantages and weakness to each approach.

The former, more traditional approach can work well in slow moving industries and sectors that have little change or turnover.  There is no need to fix what is not broken, so just keep moving along the well-articulated path.

The latter, more recent approach can work well in industries and sectors that experience frequent change, uncertainty, and shifting opportunities and partnerships.  The landscape changes so fast and so often that even a three-year projection becomes significantly irrelevant after only one or two years.  Constant adaptation is the key to success.

So … which approach does your organization follow?  Which one should it follow?

I lead an educational organization and am working on shifting us from the former to the latter.  The world of higher education and training has been experiencing seismic shifts in almost every area during recent years.  And therein lies great opportunity!   Success, however, will be achieved only if we become strategically agile and comfortable with moving toward an incomplete picture of the future.

These are exciting days to be in leadership!

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