In essence, the aim of strategic planning is to enable the organisation to make sense of its situation and decide how it wants to develop in the future – so one view of strategic planning is to consider it a means to facilitate sensemaking in an organisation. The concept of sensemaking gives us a different way of thinking about how we go about strategic planning, and what is important in the process. Sensemaking occurs by people talking, listening, reading, observing, and considering – a continual but transient process whereby once something has appeared to make sense they move on to the implications of this or to new topics, revisiting their understanding only if they encounter something that is inconsistent or otherwise creates doubt. So the basic aim in a strategic planning process is to facilitate this sensemaking, to provide opportunities for people to think through fundamental questions and collectively to come up with answers.
Although this sounds simple, there is still a major challenge involved in coming up with answers. Sensemaking is an iterative process, forming initial constructs then modifying or rejecting these in the light of new information or others’ views. The nature of sensemaking is to satisfy the need for understanding with plausible solutions, but without robust challenge and testing plausibility could be accepted at the expense of accuracy – so questioning and challenge are a vital part of the process of organisational sensemaking in a strategic planning process.
So in this way of looking at strategic planning, what we are doing is providing a framework within which organisational sensemaking can happen. We are enabling and facilitating the exchange of information, the sharing of views, the conversations and debate through which we will develop answers to our questions about the organisation and its future. We need to provide the opportunities for this discourse, the time and space for people to engage in thinking and talking; we are facilitating conversations.
But not just any conversations. These conversations need to be of a depth and quality that enables ideas to be shared and interpretations clarified, to encourage questioning and challenge, to explore implications and alternatives. They need to be allowed and encouraged to proceed until meanings are understood, and understanding is tested. Such ‘rich conversations’ are different to most of the verbal interchanges that occur in organisations (which tend to be transactional, giving or seeking information, instructing or reporting on action, rather than exploring interpretation and meaning to any depth). Rich conversations allow assumed views to be challenged and new information to be assimilated, and have the intention of achieving understanding of one’s own and others’ thinking and the openness to changing either of these.
Considered in this way, a strategic planning process is all about finding ways for such rich conversations to occur, developing shared meaning through an organisational journey to construct a cohesive response to the challenge of the four questions:
- Where are we now?
- Where do we want to go?
- How do we get there?
- How do we make it happen?
This defines the leadership challenge at the core of strategic planning. Our four questions provide an outline framework for the stages of the journey. But within each there needs to be a more detailed plan of how to go about this, to bring together effectively the information, analysis, insights, perspectives, theories, decision-making, communications needed – and the skill to adapt that plan as the process develops. What are the key aspects to consider, who should be involved, what is the most appropriate format to enable this to be considered, how can this be discussed effectively, what happens next? All of these questions are part of the thinking that needs to occur to guide the process.
Creating the right conditions in which such ‘rich conversations’ can develop is important, but often not easy; in the busy-ness of working it can be difficult to carve out suitable times when those people who ought to be involved or who could contribute can come together. It takes time also for people to tune in their thinking, both to the question being considered and for the discussions to develop to a level where meaning is being explored and tested. An environment and atmosphere which encourages this contributes too; space for thinking has both physical and temporal aspects. Setting up the discussion with the right stimuli, clarity of context and questions, and encouraging a mindset conducive to collective deliberation with due focus, commitment and energy are all part of the craft of guiding the process, as is how to continue the conversations especially when other tasks will intervene and interrupt the thinking.