Harpooning a Sacred Cow- “Strategic Plans Are Rarely Strategic-Or Effective”

Professor Wyatt Wells recently offered a column in the Wall Street Journal titled “Strategic Plans Are Rarely Strategic-Or Effective.” Professor Wells is most certainly articulating a point of view that has entered many a mind when sitting through an interminable “strategic planning” session that will produce a set of what the good professor calls “bromides.” Does he have a point? While there is no question that he is painting with a broad brush there can be no doubt that much of the criticism is valid.

Professor Wells, at Auburn University (Montgomery,) has just gone through this exercise, which likely prompted the commentary.The University recently commissioned and completed its Strategic Plan, which gets harpooned thoroughly. For those familiar with these types of efforts the work product sounds very familiar.

In its statement of principles, AUM’s plan asserts that the university seeks to “provide quality and diverse educational opportunities,” offering a “student-centered experience” with “excellence as our standard.” These are more specific than Google’s old mantra, “Don’t be evil,” but not much. Presumably every institution of higher learning shares these goals—none would boast that “adequacy is our standard.”

Professor Wells moves to business, pointing out that many business strategic plans suffer from the same problems he identifies in the Auburn plan.

Likewise, companies seek to “enhance consumers’ experience” as well as “enhance morale among employees,” as if most of their competitors believe that aggravating customers and frustrating staffers is the key to success. The word “enhance” appears over and over because it allows planners to avoid specifics and ignore where their institution stands. A company with a good reputation and another that customers are deserting in droves can both “enhance consumers’ experience,” but their needs are very different. Such statements connote no more than a desire to do better, providing neither standards nor priorities.

Professor Wells has identified the problem inherent in many such efforts, which is a desire to stick to the most general items, not address core issues facing the enterprise, and most importantly not to offer solutions that do not have 100% backing, which leads us to bromide land. While it can be said that such efforts may be team building exercises masquerading as strategic planning serious people with real work waiting tend to get frustrated at the results, and the time burn that produced those results.

Professor Wells has had a little bit of fun, and likely a little vengeance for the time burn, on the University effort. Unfortunately this type of effort is all too common in strategic planning. Avoiding difficult choices, refusing to frame enterprise problems while identifying specific solutions to those problems, will bring strong internal support for the effort, and a plan that will accumulate a healthy coating of dust as it sits unread on a shelf. Enterprises are not enhanced by these exercises, but many consultants derive some great fees for boiler plate product.

Forward planning is vitally critical for both business and government. Whether it be problem specific, or a more general outlook (financial forecasting)good planning requires specifics issues to be identified, and potential solutions devised and discussed. Professor Wells has identified the wrong way to do strategic planning, but doing it correctly has never been more important. Let us ensure that our strategic planning avoids the serious problem of “orotund verbiage.” Thank you Professor Wells.

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