Ditch The Strategic Plan — Develop a Road Map

For a lot of people, just the thought of embarking on a strategic planning process sparks a headache. Endless wordsmithing around what makes for a compelling goal; tedious meetings drilling down into minutia of who will do what, when…

It’s my opinion that strategic planning is often a cover for micromanagement, which is why so many of these plans gather dust. If that’s your goal, here’s how to ensure your strategic planning process turns into a huge waste of time and money:

  1. Ask for lots of input from stakeholders and then disregard it in whole or in part.
  2. Create an intricate, detailed, interconnected plan that will immediately get derailed by an unforeseen event — a key employee leaves, a program loses its funding, the world shuts down because of a pandemic, etc.
  3. Select unrealistic and grandiose ambitions so that your employees know immediately that they cannot succeed no matter what.

You can see why I’m not a fan of overly constructed plans for the future. Too much is unknown! If we’re going to achieve anything worthwhile, we need to stay flexible and responsive. Which is not to say that it’s impossible to plan effectively…

In his book Leading Change, John Kotter describes what I call “the allegory of the apple tree”. In this allegory, three groups of people are gathered in a park at lunchtime when a rainstorm threatens. There is a large, sprawling apple tree on the other side of the park…

In the first group, someone says: “Get up and follow me”. When he starts walking and only a few others join in, he yells to those still seated: “Up, I said, and NOW!”

In the second group, someone says: “We’re going to have to move. Here’s the plan. Each of us stands up and marches in the direction of the apple tree. Please stay at least two feet away from other group members and do not run. Do not leave any personal belongings on the ground here and be sure to stop at the base of the tree. When we are all there…”

In the third group, someone tells the others: “it’s going to rain in a few minutes. Why don’t we go over there and sit under that huge apple tree — we’ll stay dry, and we can have fresh apples for lunch.”

Obviously, this story is intended to illustrate three types of leadership: authoritarian, micromanaging, and visionary. But it applies equally to the process of strategic planning — the first example is not having a plan, the second is an overly detailed plan, and the third is, as Goldilocks would put it, “just right”.

I like to call the Goldilocks version a “Strategic Road Map.” Why a road map? Because it communicates where we’re going and why, and it roughly outlines the road we’ll take to get there, but it leaves room for detours and pit stops and taking the scenic route.

The process of building this kind of roadmap is simple:

  1. Gather input. This journey is going to be a caravan — in order to ensure everyone heads in the same direction, you’ll need to include input from all the passengers before you get underway.
  2. Refine the Ideas. This is the hardest part: you have to sift through the input to find the common threads, and then weave them together into compelling statements that help the decision-makers select an achievable and meaningful destination. (This happens to be one of my Ringmaster superpowers!)
  3. Define the Destination. A small group of decision-makers gathers to review the (curated) input and decide on the destination. They also identify appropriate landmarks to pass along the way.
  4. Present the Plan. It should be easy to explain, exciting to imagine, and inspire people to join in the fun!

Planning doesn’t have to be painful, exhausting, or alienating. If you’re willing to toss the traditional approach out the window (just kidding — don’t litter!) you can absolutely find the “just right” path from where you are to where you want to be.

Hanna (at) masteryourcircus.com

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Hanna J. Miller, MS

Hanna J. Miller, MS

I work with leaders, teams, and organizations to unlock superstar potential and help them step confidently into their spotlights.