Does strategic planning help organizations?

Steve Kelman notes growing support for strategic planning efforts -- and the steps agencies take to keep those plans relevant.

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The deliberative, deliberate culture found in most federal agencies puts planning on a pedestal, as something we should all strive for. Many feds (and outside critics) complain that government doesn’t plan enough. Planning is so honored in government that sometimes you might think we long for the days of the Soviet Union and its five-year roadmaps.

Yet planning also has its critics. Particularly in a government context, some worry about analysis paralysis -- that people spend so much time thinking about what to do that they never get around actually to doing anything.

There is also a criticism -- made sometimes by advocates of agile software development -- that we can’t know enough when we get started on something to figure out in advance what makes sense. Better, according to this view, to get started trying things out, and then be prepared to redirect and course-correct based on what you learn from the effort. As one corporate executive once put it: “We have a strategic plan. It’s called doing things.”

I just started teaching the latest iteration of our Senior Executive Fellows program, one of the Kennedy School’s flagship executive education programs, taught five times a year to an audience of mostly federal GS-15s and military colonels. About 20% of participants come from outside the U.S. -- this time, mostly from Africa.

One of my topics for the first week is strategy and strategic planning. As part of the case we discussed in class this week, I did a class poll of whether or not, in their own organizations, they generally found developing a strategic plan to be helpful.

Interestingly (and I will add that I didn’t necessarily expect this result the first time I asked a class this question), about three-quarters said developing a plan was generally helpful. These numbers are pretty much in line with what I usually get when asking this question.

I then ask the students who gave each response to say why they gave it. In particular, I asked the ones who said strategic planning was helpful whether they had ever done anything different in their organization from what they would have done otherwise due to their strategic plan. (I should say that while I've always dad great executive education students in this program, this crop is absolutely amazing. I’ve been getting some of the best discussions I’ve ever had, including this discussion of strategic planning.)

Nobody who liked planning talked about the kind of environmental scanning and SWOT (strengths/weaknesses/opportunities/threats) analysis that conventional discussions of strategic planning often emphasize. Instead, those who said their plans were helpful gave two related answers.

First, they talked about ways that strategic planning tied into the organization’s overall strategy. The most common response was that developing a strategic plan helped them focus on the goals in the plan. Without a plan, a number of them said, our organization would have been more all over the map, with random de facto prioritization based on personal views and reactions. The plan was a force multiplier (though nobody used that term), concentrating effort around the highest priorities.

A related observation was that their plan was a great signaling tool for economically sending a message to staff, particularly lower-level staff, about what was important.

I asked the class whether their organizations had regular meetings to check on the status of goals in their strategic plan -- in a sense, using the strategic plan as a performance measurement tool. This time, about 85% said yes.

I had never known that any organizations had such meetings; this got raised by participants in some earlier classes, and because I was surprised that this was done at all, I started asking the class this question about two years ago. The first time I asked it, about half said yes. This number has been going up since then so it now has reached a record high. I am not sure what explains this change -- could it somehow have something to do with the Trump administration?

The participants who said strategic planning didn’t help their organization also gave two answers. The most common was that the plan had been developed without input from members of the organization, and ended up as a piece of paper that was just filed away, unused.

Some also said the environment in their organizations was so unstable that a plan developed today would likely be of little use very soon. This applies to some organizations in government, but not all or perhaps not even most.

A number of years ago I wrote an academic paperwith a former student of mine, Jeff Myers, then working at Booz Allen. We wanted to examine the management practices of senior executives (mostly at the assistant secretary level) who had successfully implemented major changes in their organizations. The successful executives were nominated by a group of public administration scholars, respected practitioners, and journalists covering government.

 We wanted, however, not just to look at what successful ones did, because maybe failures had done the same things, but instead compared them with a random sample of all assistant secretaries. We asked both groups about what they did to try to achieve their goals, and classified their answers into categories.

To our surprise, the single biggest differentiator between the outstanding executives and the average ones was using strategic planning!

So yes, it does help.

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