“Strategy is more about learning than it is about planning”

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Henry Mintzberg made this comment in his recent video blog (Hoping for the best is not an acceptable strategy). Although the blog was about the coronavirus pandemic rather than specifically about strategy, this statement stood out for me (it was almost an aside, but Professor Mintzberg’s views about strategy are always thought-provoking).

 

It is a bold assertion which seemingly challenges the traditional view of strategic planning as a methodical project requiring high levels of expertise to apply deep analysis, sophisticated techniques and intensive focus, aimed at compiling an impressive and definitive document endorsed by the Board. Yet it resonates with me: strategic planning is a journey for the organisation during which it works out where it wants to be and how to get there. There is a lot of learning involved in such a strategy journey: this is what I wrote in my book ‘Strategy Journeys – a guide to effective strategic planning

 

Organisational Learning

One of the most powerful benefits of strategic planning is what is learnt by the organisation. An effective strategic planning process is a journey of discovery, when people come to a shared understanding about their organisation, its purpose and role, what they would like it to achieve and how it will develop to enable this to happen.

People also learn about strategic planning from their participation in this process – the technical aspects such as analysis and developing projection models, some of the tools such as 2-D grids, and techniques such as using an iterative approach and developing a narrative. They can also learn more about how people think, the need to make sense of situations, and how rich conversations help develop shared meaning. They will have seen the power of questions to drive the work in developing strategies, the value of asking ‘What if?’ and the importance of constructive challenge. Thinking through alternatives, evaluating options and making decisions can develop both individual and organisational abilities. Developing an effective strategic plan requires the synthesis of strategies and plans and the ability to adapt these whilst maintaining consistency. Especially powerful is learning how organisations can develop the capability to respond quickly to events using the foundations of the thinking they have developed together so far on their strategy journey. Undertaking such a journey will develop both people’s individual skills and the organisation’s capabilities in strategising, organising, leadership and learning, and most importantly strengthen their ability to undertake their next strategy journey adventure.

 

Such learning is arguably the most important potential benefit that an organisation can gain from strategic planning: it strengthens the capability of the organisation to develop and implement its strategy and to be able to adapt this to meet future challenges. Embarking on a strategy journey as an organisation, answering questions with depth and insight to help decide where it is heading, having the ‘rich conversations’ to make sense of this and develop a common understanding and purpose, and learning collectively and individually from the experience: these are valuable aspects of developing a strategic plan. This learning, and the increased confidence that comes with it, are what will help prepare the organisation for the future challenges it will face and how it adapts its strategy to deal with them. It seems likely that this is what Mintzberg meant in his statement: by focusing just on producing a plan organisations could miss this powerful opportunity to learn.

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