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Is Strategic Planning Dead?

According to Wikipedia, “strategic planning is an organization’s process of defining its strategy, or direction, and making decisions on allocating its resources to pursue this strategy.” This process – or a key component of it – often entails long-range planning as a way of carving out your organization’s seat at the table of our shared futures.

With instantaneous communication, micro-trends that last just days or weeks (does anyone even remember S#!& Girls Say?!), and technologies that are obsolete mere months after release, do we need to adjust our time horizons to more accurately reflect our Fast Times (at Ridgemont High)?

Or put differently, can you really plan 5-10 years out any longer? If yes, how? If not, what should be the new benchmark in an era of prototyping and fast failure?

Andy Lowenthal is a public sector strategy consultant. Follow him on 
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Henry Brown

IMO one of the reasons that the government, at least in my experience, gets bogged down with this issue, is the somewhat poor understanding of the difference between strategic and tactical planning

The other thing that I found somewhat difficult to do was keep the strategic planning just that and leave the short term planning (tactical planning) to deal with dynamic nature of IT technology.

Suspect that it has always (at least since I have been a player) been somewhat of a problem. One of the ways that I overcame the issue of meaningless 5 and 7 year planning was make them as generic as possible and spend minimal amount of time ANNUALLY updating them. Choosing instead to dedicate resources to a “new” strategic plan that only went out 3 years.

Another way I would attempt to address this issue was to limit the involvement of the “techies” in the long term strategic planning.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Great question, Andy. I was just speaking at CityCamp Raleigh on Friday and we spent some time talking about the speed of change and how government needs to adapt to that velocity shift. One of my fellow panelists mentioned Moore’s Law – that disruptive tech changes occur roughly every 18-24 months…but that it’s actually probably under a year at this point.

Change is happening and, as a result, I have several reasons why I think 5-10 year plans are way too long:

1. No sense of urgency.

2. Do not feel achievable (even if they have SMART goals attached to them).

3. Thwart quick wins that create velocity for real change.

Longest I’d map out a plan is 3 years, but only have 6 months to a year in front of folks at any given time.

Chris Cairns

For strategic planning, 5 to 10 years is too long, for the most part. All depends on the industry and function. If you specialize in emergency technologies, you better be able to plan multiple scenarios of the future 5-25 years out.

Andy Lowenthal

So it sounds like we have rough agreement that 3 years is the right time horizon for strategic planning. But Chris brings up a great point — it really depends on the industry and function. If you’re heavy into research and development of any kind (EPA, NIH, CDC, Dept of Energy, etc.), then 3 years may be too brief.

I think the greater concern, however, is that planning out 5-7 years can actually be constricting to Andy K’s 3rd point below — it can thwart quick wins. Let’s take a ridiculously fictional example of opening a string of recycling plants around the country. If DIY recycling becomes all the rage in 2014, there will already be massive procurement processes in place, staffs being recruited, jobs being promised, political points to-be-scored by members of Congress, etc. It will be a lot harder to turn on a dime and shift funds and human resources towards some other project or priority.

Andrew Krzmarzick

I’m assuming Mr. Ewing meant to post this here:

Regardless of the speed of change in our “modern” times, the idea of planning for the longer term remains a critical endeavor, perhaps even more critical than ever before because of the tools for rapid communications which help us to transcend time and space as never before.

As thinking creatures we plan by nature; indeed, we have an urge within ourselves to engage the future by imagining it. This is what strategic planning is all about in my view. This idea of visioning the future is what motivates us in what we do now and gives us some sense of urgency in our daily activities.

To me future strategic time frames are not as important as simply being able to anticipate future accomplishment and move toward it.

In our community we do this through an old tool but new to us…Biennial Budgeting. It may seem contradictory that we actually have extended the former annual budgeting to 24 months, but we do this to give us more time to work with rapid change daily and not spend more time in details of short term planning while at the same time helping us to extend our vision first from 12 to 24 months and then using strategic planning as a broad vision and as “guidance” for the future…the two processes go hand in hand.

Peter G. Tuttle

Great subject. I agree with Chris; it depends on what you are planning for. Aside from this I was recently chatting with a senior Federal official who opined that if you don’t get the “block & tackling” right first, you’ll never get to planning for the future effectively. Why? You’ll spend all your time fixing today’s problems. Perhaps that is one reason why it is difficult to plan too much in advance many times – we are drawn back into today’s real world problems (many of which are created by poor infrastructure and back-office systems, to use IT as an example) and can’t look forward. Cheers. Pete