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Strategic Planning – The Fallacy of the Simple Answer

“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd”. Voltaire

Strategic planning seems to offer a contradictory set of possibilities. On the one hand planning promises clarity and certainty – use tools such as a SWOT analysis, market research and sound prioritization, goes the argument, and all will become clear. Once our direction is set, the job is to stay on plan.

“But wait a moment,” say those who want more flexibility.

“How can we be certain in a world of turmoil and change? We need to be agile and opportunistic. We need to be able to keep our options open. We need to keep thinking”.

Strategic planning should aim to provide both certainty and a healthy dose of doubt.

Either/Or vs Both/And

Barry Johnson in his book Polarity Management makes the point that too often complex problems are treated as if they ‘Either/Or’ problems. For example companies rush from centralizing control (the problem) to decentralizing it (the solution) in the hope that they will release creative energy nearer the customer. This may happen, but soon unintended consequences start showing themselves. Decentralization of decision making, for example, can lead to a loss of efficiency that is gained from coordination. And sooner or later, the pendulum starts creeping back.

From a planning and management perspective, we should avoid the simplistic ‘flavor of the month’ answer. Instead of relying on ‘Either/Or’ thinking, we should use ‘Both/And’ reasoning. ‘Both/And’ approaches require us to recognize the positives of both our options and search for ways to plan to benefit from those benefits. So, instead of swinging wildly from centralized to decentralized control, we should look for creative and innovative ways to get the best of both worlds – maintain central purchasing of key services and good, while delegating customer related decision making as close to the client as possible. It is possible to have the best of both centralized decision making and decentralized autonomy, but only if it deliberately planned for.

A Guide, not a Straitjacket

Strategic planning is only the first step in successful strategic management. A well-crafted strategic plan is the result of careful thinking that avoids, as far as possible, the traps of binary, Either/Or thinking. Once the strategic plan is complete, of course, it is potentially obsolete, overtaken by changes in the market place or the loss of a key account to a competitor. Strategic management needs to use the plan as a firm guide to the enterprise not as an inflexible straitjacket. Plans can seldom be “locked down”. More often they provide a playbook for a period of time and give management a guideline for activities and behaviours in the business.


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