Business Library

Strategic Planning or Strategic Dreaming: Which are you Doing?

Deborah Mackin - President and Founder | New Directions Consulting

So many businesses and organizations are facing futures of uncertainty or tremendous demands; some need to reinvent themselves; others must transform into something completely new and different. The current strategic plan may now be obsolete, even while still in design. As we look to generating new plans, I believe there are some important things to keep in mind.

It is helpful to look at an organization at three different levels: tactical, operational and strategic. Tactical refers to ground floor planning — the “to do” list that keep the organization running. Operational planning refers to setting measurable goals and deliverables for the coming year. The third level of planning — what I like to call “flying at 30,000 feet” is strategic planning — when we look beyond the horizon, forecast the future, and determine what we need to do to achieve it.

The problem with strategic planning is that most people don’t know how to do it. The anxiety caused by needing to find solutions keeps people trapped in a “what can we fix right now” mindset. For example, in a recent strategic planning session, one person suggested that the organization needs to reduce expenses and be more competitive by examining costs associated with its product lines. That is a very good strategic statement. The next step should be to ask a series of questions: What are our current costs associated with our product lines? Are they out of alignment with expectations? What do we know about our competitors’ product lines and their costs? Where are our products related to product life cycle?

Instead of asking questions, the next person simply responded with an opinion about whether he liked the original idea. Others posed tactical arguments about how long it would take to do the analysis. Not long after that, another person introduced a different idea — going into new geographic areas — and the process started all over again. What started out as strategic brainstorming quickly became an evaluative process, drilling down to the tactical level until the idea was rejected.

As much as our sense of urgency makes us want to jump in and fix things, we need to resist the urge and begin with the following:

1. A clear definition of the problem(s) we’re trying to fix;
2. Time spent asking questions about the problem and gathering relevant data to provide insight about the direction we should take;
3. A clearly stated, measurable goal that defines the vision of where we want to be;
4. An assessment of the gap between the problem (where we are today) and the vision (where we need to be)
5. A determination of what it will take to close the gap and whether it is feasible based on five pillars: service, quality, cost, growth, and people.

Closing the gap becomes the work of the strategic plan. Without that analysis, strategic planning just becomes strategic dreaming — where every idea is either good or bad and the focus is on the to do list rather than the organization’s future.

Deborah Mackin, president and founder of New Directions Consulting Inc., is an international consultant and trainer on teams, quality and leadership. Mackin is also the author of the best selling series of team-building books, The Team-Building Tool Kit (2nd ed. 2007, American Management Association) and Keeping The Team Going (1996, American Management Association). She puts out a weekly blog on tips and tactics for business leaders (