Moving from strategic plans to strategic action plans

I n the last month, I’ve encountered two situations in which the conventional approach to strategy has broken down. Strategic planning, as a management discipline, emerged from operations planning during World War II. The process is top-down, linear, logical, heavily analytic.

The problem, of course, is that our organizations and our economies don’t function this way. While conventional strategic planning can produce a plan, the processes become less and less successful in generating results.

Consider a major department of a Fortune 200 company. They spent money months and invested heavily in outside consultants to yield an impressive plan. Now, however, no one seems to know how to implement the plan. The strategic plan has an internal logic organized graphically around a set of pillars (a common visual metaphor), but there is no clear way to start. Worse still, the heavy investment of time and energy in generating the plan has taken a toll. People seem resigned to watching yet another strategy exercise fizzle out.

A region stuck inside its strategic plan

Now consider another situation. A region has completed a two-year process to develop an extensive economic development strategy. Again, the logic and organization is familiar. Vision and mission statements have been slowly shaped to reflect the concerns of diverse constituencies. Wrinkles of doubt and dissension have been painstakingly hammered out (or so everyone thinks). Tightly organized committees have met to consider a range of options on topics ranging from infrastructure to education and innovation. The carefully scripted launch event has taken place. Politicians have spoken, and editors have weighed in. The glossy graphics of a carefully designed strategic plan catch the eye.

There’s only one problem. No one quite knows what to do next. Caught in a no man’s land of doubt, political and civic leaders retreat to familiar ground: they set up committees. Yet, somehow doubt starts to creep in. Can they really implement a complex strategy through committees?

In both situations, conventional strategic planning methods produced a plan but not action. The reason is simple. In a world that’s more connected, complex and confusing, mechanistic, straight-line approaches to strategy don’t work.


Replacing strategic plans with strategic action plans

It’s time to replace strategic plans with the strategic action plans. These are far more adaptive and agile. Strategic action plans are more like software that is frequently revised and improved through different versions.

The days of conventional strategic planning are numbered.

Strategic action plans operate with a different set of assumptions. They are built for networks and learning not hierarchies and commands. They accumulate data along the way. They foster collective learning by doing.

The good news is that agile strategy methods transition easily from traditional strategic plans. They accelerate implementation by designing small, collaborative experiments to figure out what works. They rely on intuition and collective intelligence fueled by cognitive diversity. They focus to find initiatives that are replicable, scalable and sustainable, the type of initiatives that can transform an organization or a regional economy.

There’s one more piece of good news: strategic action plans are simpler, faster and less costly to prepare. It’s not hard to figure out: The days of conventional strategic planning are numbered.

Ed Morrison is Director of the Purdue Agile Strategy Lab. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. For the past five or six years, he has been developing new, agile approaches to strategy in open, loosely joined networks, a discipline he calls Strategic Doing. Prior to starting his economic development work, Ed worked for Telesis, a corporate strategy consulting firm. In this position, he served on consulting teams for clients such as Ford Motor Company, Volvo, and General Electric. He conducted manufacturing cost studies in the U.S., Japan, Mexico, Canada, Italy, Sweden, and France. Ed started his professional career in Washington, D.C., where he has served as a legislative assistant to an Ohio Congressman, staff attorney in the Federal Trade Commission, and staff counsel in the US Senate. He holds a BA degree cum laude with honors from Yale University and MBA and JD degrees from the University of Virginia.

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