Social Craftspersons, Artful Interpreters and Known Strangers

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What does it take to be an effective strategic planner?

The traditional view of strategic planning practitioners focuses on their abilities as strategic thinkers and analytical planners: how well-versed they are in the sophisticated tools and techniques of strategic analysis and the process of applying these systematically to inform their organisation’s strategy deliberations and produce a strategic plan. This perspective leads to the impression that strategic planning is a somewhat cold, formal, complicated project to be undertaken by experts.

But it’s not. At its heart it’s about how the organisation – and that means the people in the organisation – makes sense of where it’s going and how it’s going to get there; and this requires other skills in addition to strategic thinking and analysis. I wrote my book ‘Strategy Journeys‘ to show that effective strategic planning is about how you engage people to achieve this, and that strategy is as much about conversations and engagement as it is about analysis, data and techniques.

My approach when helping organisations to develop and implement their strategic plans is to act as a ‘trusted guide’ to help them navigate the process (including using whatever tools and techniques might help), complementing their knowledge and capabilities, and contributing with leading questions and constructive challenge where appropriate. It therefore resonated with me last week when I re-read an article from a few years ago by two Professors, Mattias Nordqvist and Leif Melin from Jönköping International Business School in Sweden that introduced the idea of ‘Strategic Planning Champions’1 and what roles they play to make a difference.

Strategic thinker and analytical planner is of course one of the roles – having knowledge about best strategy practices and tools and how and when to apply these, and to be able to drive strategic thinking based on this knowledge and experience. But there are three other roles and skills that are important too:

  • Social craftsperson, able to understand and manage the different expectations and views from various groups and individuals, and capable of steering a way sensitively to resolve the tensions and conflicts that can emerge from the different interests and concerns;
  • Artful interpreter, appreciating and respecting the organisation’s specific context, culture and ways of operating, and able to adjust the strategic planning process to take these into account (the skill is in adapting what has been learnt from the strategic planning champion’s extensive previous experience and applying it to fit the specific situation of each organisation); and
  • Known stranger, maintaining a balance between closeness and distance to those in the organisation involved in developing the strategic plan, establishing a relationship of trust but reserving the independence and autonomy to be able to provide objective advice and constructive critical challenge.

When I reflect on how I’ve worked with organisations I can see how important all these roles are in helping the organisation with its strategic planning – it’s a useful framework for articulating these aspects. It’s noticeable that the three ‘additional’ skills are all about relationships, people and processes, rather than technical expertise – reinforcing that effective strategic planning is in essence about people not just analysis.

Some personal comments:

I wouldn’t have chosen the term ‘Champion‘ – it feels too self-focused; I see myself more of a ‘trusted guide and active contributor’ to the organisation’s own strategy journey. However, what is important is the quality of the relationship and contribution that will help an organisation to work out how it sees its future and how to work towards this.

Also, whilst it is of course quite possible for these roles to be undertaken by an individual (or small group) solely within the organisation, it can be harder for them to maintain an objective and independent distance without affecting their relationships within the organisation; a ‘known stranger’ / ‘trusted guide’ from outside the organisation has an advantage here. However, I don’t want my client organisations to become dependent on me, so there is another important dimension to my approach which is encouraging individuals and the organisation to learn from their strategy work, to develop the knowledge, experience and confidence to be able to embark on the next stage of their strategy journeys with less (or a different kind of) help.

  1.  The article by Nordqvist and Melin, ‘Strategic Planning Champions: Social Craftspersons, Artful Interpreters and Known Strangers’ was published in Long Range Planning  Volume 41, Issue 3 in June 2008, Pages 326-344

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