How to Avoid the Trap Between Strategy and Planning

How much strategy is enough?

I think we can all agree that a strategic plan is important. A good strategic plan is simultaneously:

  • a compelling argument for why we want to go somewhere
  • a clear road map to help us get there
  • a clear set of standards describing the benefits of arriving at our destination.

But how detailed does our plan need to be? Too much detail and no one will read it or adopt it. Too little detail and people won’t find the plan compelling, won’t understand it, or won’t know what success looks like.

So, what do we do?  The conventional wisdom is to do two versions: 1. a highly detailed version with hundreds of slides and 2. A 20-slide executive summary.

But both become useless fairly quickly. Why? The details of the plan go sideways due to delays, budget fluctuations, and resource changes. Once the details change, managers get nervous about their ability to meet the standards of success. People to question the direction, and then everything starts all over again.

What\’s the answer? Should we just stop creating strategic plans?

Well no. That won’t work.

The key is to acknowledge the trap that lies between strategy and planning. The strategy sets a vision for a change. The plan attempts to make the unknown as known as it can be. It makes people more and more comfortable with our ability to head in the direction proposed.

The strategy is the direction. The plan is the details of how to get there.

Many multi-year strategic plans get a “beta” or “prototype” approval. Business managers like to manage costs against predictable results, and it’s easier to forecast the known short-term predictability of an effort.

A strategy should make clear the direction we want to go, regardless of whether or not we know the details of our ability to get there. In other words, a strategy is simple, short, and provides planning details only to demonstrate that we have good odds to get there.

Detailed planning is a fluid process that evolves based on whether the odds are growing or shrinking based on the realities of the business. Instead of creating two versions of our strategy presentations – let’s create one clear strategy, and a living, breathing plan.

An old quote usually attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower goes, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”  This is usually taken to mean that what’s valuable isn’t the plan itself, but the planning process. 

But we rarely hear the rest of that quote.  Eisenhower also said, “This is a very great distinction, because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of ‘emergency’ is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.”

Think of the path to our strategic destination like the emergency Eisenhower references. How we get to that destination is unknown – and it’s probably not going to happen the way we plan it.    

How much strategy do you need? How much detail should there be? The first question you should answer is what are you communicating? A strategy, or a plan

Start by building your strategy – simply and clearly. Then build a living breathing plan to fit that strategy, instead of making the strategy fit the plan.

The trap is in trying to do both at the same time.

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