When a strategic plan is not one in the first place


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Dear Ian,

We just completed our 3-year strategic plan and the budget process took so long that by the time it was approved, I feel that the market has shifted. But senior management is pushing us to implement the plan, which, I feel has already been overtaken by events. My question is, is the strategic plan sacrosanct and cannot be changed once approved?

Perplexed

Dear Perplexed,

This is a great question! Ultimately you are asking, "Can we change our 3-year strategic plan even before it has started?" The short answer is "Obviously yes!" but it opens up a few strategic questions, and also challenges some of our processes. In the end, you will find that most people will say no, not for the strategicness of no, but for personal face-saving. Let me elaborate.

Why your strategic plan should not change so quickly

If you look at what a strategic plan is, it encompasses the organisation's vision, mission, values, its 3-year intent vis-a-vis the vision and mission, and the actions required to get there. Your vision should not change; after all, this is what you sell both to your employees as well as to your customers. Your branding efforts take a big reference to this vision, so all your marketing assets are based on this. If you have a poor vision, you will have a poor strategy. So unless your vision is bad, and that means you should have focused on that in your strategic planning session, then, you shouldn't change your plan so quickly.

Your strategic intent, by the same token shouldn't change. This is your objective to be met over the next three years which is, again, aligned with your vision. If your vision is valid, then your intent should be. So long as your vision and intent remain constant and valid, there is no need to change your plan.

But does that mean that we have to hold on to a bad plan if it is no longer relevant in the market? No. Many a times, the action plans may have to change due to changing environmental factors. Your intent remains; just the means to achieve it can change. Does this mean that you have been changing your strategic plan? The answer is no. A good strategic plan must leave room for tactical pivots. When we know that inputs in the environment have shifted, it is incumbent on us to make the concomitant shift in our execution. We are still sticking to the strategic plan, just making adjustments.

When can we change our strategic plan?

So when can we change our strategic plan, especially when we are just starting it out? Since I mentioned that we can, here are several scenarios that demand that we change it:

1. When the strategic planning process was not carried out well (this we have alluded to already)

2. When there was no buy-in with key stakeholders when the plan was laid out (leading now to double-backing, and backstabbing)

3. When the cost of implementation was not well laid out, leading to a serious under-resourcing issue

4. When the people involved were not qualified to make those decisions

5. When there is no unity in senior leadership, leading to power play and positioning which waters down the plan and makes it ineffective

Any of the above situations may result in a very poor strategic plan, and warrant that the plan be redone. Going ahead with it knowing that this was the backdrop endangers the whole three years of business performance, and is unfair to the people on the ground executing it.

It all boils down to leadership

When you look at it, you will realise that most of the problems come from leadership interaction and if this is bad, the whole process is undermined. The need to redo the whole planning process is required, but because it is a reflection of poor leadership, no leader will agree to replanning. And that is where the impasse will be. So, Perplexed, your problem probably stems from leadership inadequacies, and if there is no enlightenment at that level, you will have a poor strategic plan for the next three years; and maybe the three after that. I am afraid you have either of two choices in this instance: grin and bear it, praying that there is some divine intervention; or leave, especially if you will ultimately be the person holding the stick when the music stops.

I wish you all the best!

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