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The Strategic Planning Process

“Real-world plans are idealized representations of our visions. Unfortunately, we live in a real world where outcomes are most often approximations of perfection. Because there is typically slippage between ideal and real, it is even more important to ensure that our thinking is pristine.” —R.H. Doktor  

“Wisdom is what you have when you can routinely create plans and initiate actions that prevent you from having to use it.”    —Unknown

We've all engaged in planning and plan implementation, but if we reflect on those experiences, how often can we claim that our efforts produced outcomes that were optimal? If you believe some of your plans have fallen short, that just makes you human. Planning is one of the greatest challenges we face as a species; to do it well requires deep understanding of and careful application of virtually every piece of the thinking puzzle.

Excellent planners have knowledge of three types:

  1. knowledge of the subject matter for which they need a plan
  2. knowledge of the planning process itself, and
  3. knowledge of how to implement the plan once it’s created. 

The word "strategy" comes from the Greek strategos, referring to a military general and combining stratos (the army) and ago (to lead). The primary tasks of strategic management are to understand the environment, define organizational goals, identify options, make and implement decisions, and evaluate actual performance. Thus, strategic planning aims to exploit the new and different opportunities of tomorrow, in contrast to long-range planning, which tries to optimize for tomorrow the trends of today (Drucker 1980, p. 61).

Traditional long-range planning in its most elementary form is based on the concept that planning consists of at least four key steps--monitoring, forecasting, goal setting, and implementing--which are intended to answer where is the organization now, where is it going, where does it want to go, what does it have to do to change where it is going to get to where it wants to go?

Strategic planning is more encompassing by providing:

  • an assessment of where you are now
  • a framework around which to define vision, purpose, and values
  • visioning structures to identify internal and external factors that promise to impact on us
  • a set of achievable strategic directions and implementation plans, and
  • a blueprint for implementing actions that mesh with goals.

Your plans, however, should be “written in sand” so they can be adapted to match the realities of a rapidly changing world. Strategic planning involves four stages:

  • analysis
  • planning
  • implementation
  • continuous monitoring and evaluation

Conceptually these stages translate into the following components:

  • develop your vision of the future and define your purpose
  • establish your values
  • assess the internal environment—strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT Analysis)
  • conduct an external environmental scan: opportunities and threats, economic, social and technological forces and trends
  • formulate strategic directions and specific implementation plans to set directions and to determine how the "work" will get done to reach the goals.
  • integrate an ongoing system of evaluation to determine if your actions are in sync with what you're trying to do and where you're trying to go.

Performing these activities is a continuing process that, for example, produces a one-year operating plan and a five- or ten-year long-range plan every year. The long-range planning cycle begins by monitoring selected trends of interest to the organization, forecasting the expected future of those trends (usually based upon extrapolation from historical data using regression analysis or a similar technique), defining the desired future by setting organizational goals in the context of the expected future, developing and implementing specific policies and actions designed to reduce the difference between the expected future and the desired future, and monitoring the effects of these actions and policies on the selected trends.

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