Strategy and Planning: Your Strategic Plan is Rubbish
"Every word of what you just said was wrong." (Luke Skywalker).
"It isn’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so." (Mark Twain).
"Everyone's got a plan until they get punched in the mouth" (Mike Tyson)
In ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ George Clooney recruits a gang - they’re going to break into a Las Vegas casino and steal $150million – cash.
‘I have a question,’ says Carl Reiner, ‘Do we have a plan?’
‘Yes,’ says Clooney.
And that’s it. Clooney has a plan and that’s enough – no-one asks if the plan is any good.
Matt Damon pinches the security guard's badge…..Casey Affleck places balloons over the security cameras and Clooney successfully charms Julia Roberts.
Everyone has a part to play. If they learn their part and carry it out in turn – just at the right time - the money will be theirs.
Just like business.
In business, we love a plan.
There’s something truly fulfilling about the planning process. The excitement as we watch it pick up speed. There’s always a plan nearby. Have a good look around. Everyone is doing a plan. Or de-briefing from a planning session. Or engaged in a re-plan. Or developing an overarching plan. Or planning a presentation about a plan.
Like a mathematical algorithm. If we all complete our actions on time and in sequence the plan will bring results. The money in the casino will be ours!
August / September – The start of the planning cycle. A time-honoured ritual. Predict where we’ll be at year end, engage our clairvoyant skills and see where we’ll be in December next year.
It’s something like this:
Senior managers go on a retreat and do a strategic plan. They delight in completing a competitor mapping (see, for example, ‘Blue Ocean Strategy:’ Kan and Mauborgne) and are thrilled at the prospect of a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats).
The strategic plan is presented to the Board – the relief is palpable as they approve it.
The strategic plan is briefed to the investors (if the company has them). The investors mull the plan over and give it the green light - although CEOs will be criticised if they don’t have a good plan (see, for example, ‘Elon Musk:’ Ashlee Vance).
The strategic plan is broken down into functional plans: a marketing plan, a sales plan, a people plan, a financial plan and an operations plan. Everyone has a plan.
Departments then go on their planning off-sites and, eventually, the managers get their plans.
And all the plans fit neatly together. 🤣
‘Plans are seen as scaffolding stretching out into the months ahead, upon which we will build our better future.’ (Marcus Buckingham: ‘9 Lies About Work’).
And then the feeling of futility kicks in:
2020 has been particularly chaotic, but let’s face it, even in typical times most planning and budgeting processes are frustrating. They start five or six months early with promises of visionary transformations that quickly give way to tedious templates, endless financial forecasts, haggling over targets, and battling for resources (Darren Rigby: ‘Harvard Business Review:’ August 2020).
The time it all takes.
How the real world changes so quickly - by January everything has changed. Generalities are no good – and the more detail in the plan, the quicker the real world disproves it. If Clooney’s gang operated in the real world, heavy traffic would delay them getting to the casino and when they get there, the casino will be closed due to a lockdown, with the money safely in the bank.
In a world of unpredictable and accelerating change, long-term forecasts will be increasingly unreliable, and commanding people to stick to flawed plans will grow more dangerous. (’Harvard Business Review:’ August 2020).
Worse still - the people doing the plan are rarely close to real world detail – they aren’t selling to the customer or managing the day-to-day issues. They don’t understand the real world obstacles that have to be overcome to implement the plan.
Plans rest on assumptions that are often wrong. People back away from plans that don’t reflect the world they experience.
Plans have some benefits:
They help us scope the world as it is now – help us scope the problems and issues – they help us scope the business as it is and what has happened in the recent past.
They help scope the problems we face but, in the real world, not the solutions.
The thing we call planning, doesn’t tell you where to go, just helps you understand where you are. Or, rather where you were, recently. But, we aren’t doing much that’s useful going forward. (‘9 Lies About Work’).
By all means set goals. But, co-ordinate your team real time: regular check-ins and reviews armed with current information – not 6-monthly objective setting or working on actions in a that were developed months ago.
2021 isn’t going to be a marathon – it’s going to be series of short-term sprints.
‘Tell me why all the best laid plans
Fall apart in your hands
And my good intentions never end
The way I meant.’(James Blunt).