Shifting From Strategic Planning to Strategic Agility

Shifting From Strategic Planning to Strategic AgilityAt the end of last year, I wrote about the need to put the old strategic planning model out to pasture and embrace a new method that focuses on developing strategic agility.

Here’s why this is so critical.

At its core, strategic planning involves a process of analysis. You do some research into what is and what isn’t possible. You define a goal, break that goal down into manageable steps, and determine how to implement them while identifying the expected consequences of each step. It’s a logical, straightforward process designed to sequentially move the organization from where you are now to where you want to go.

The huge flaw in this process is the assumption that the world is reasonably stable and somewhat predictable. Maybe a few generations ago. But anyone who has been paying attention the last few years knows that today’s world is neither.

The traditional planning model also assumes that products and markets move through their life cycles in a sequential, orderly manner. Again, maybe a few generations ago, but certainly not any more. When you can’t forecast what your market will look like in a year or even six months, engaging in a lengthy planning process only wastes time and resources. Worse, it gives competitors who have already embraced strategic thinking a distinct advantage.

What’s the difference between strategic planning and strategic thinking?

Strategic planning is a seemingly logical, linear, step-by-step process that focuses on analysis. Strategic thinking engages other parts of our brain in synthesizing in addition to analyzing. It uses intuition, creativity and “what if?” questioning to pull together an integrated perspective from a wide variety of data sources and creates a vision of where the organization needs to go.

Strategic planning has a beginning and an end. It is typically conducted by senior management, and usually results in a formal written plan. Strategic thinking never ends. It becomes an integral part of how the organization conducts its business, and needs to be practiced by employees at all levels.

To develop the skill of strategic thinking in your organization:

  1. Focus on a target. Start by getting very clear on what winning looks like for your organization (division, team, project, etc.). Then communicate your picture of winning over and over until everyone gets it.
  2. Ask the right questions. When you can’t have all the data, the only alternative is to ask the right questions. Good questions get people to look at the same data differently, so that you get many different perspectives on any given issue. They also shift the energy so that people look to find what will instead of what won’t.
  3. Balance the big picture and the details along the way. Here’s where strategic thinking really diverges from strategic planning. With strategic planning, you set a firm course and stick to it as much as possible, making some allowances for deviation from the plan. Strategic thinking remains focused on the target (big picture) while staying open and flexible to changing what it takes to get there (the details).
  4. Explore new channels. Strategic thinking also requires broadening your horizons and expanding your data gathering efforts beyond traditional sources. What’s happening beyond the walls of your business and your industry? Where else can you look to learn? How can you develop new ways of communicating and connecting with key stakeholders?
  5. Teach strategic thinking skills. Teach people at all levels to anticipate opportunities and threats while managing their day-to-day tasks and responsibilities. Give them the training, coaching, and mentoring to become more responsive to changing customer needs. Develop their creative problem solving skills, and help them understand how their decisions and actions impact the business in the future as well as today.
  6. Stage your field of vision. Most of all, strategic thinking requires a daily focus on your vision of winning. How will you keep the right things in front of you to direct your attention, energy, and thoughts on winning? How can you get them in front of others? How will you stay clear on winning when major challenges and obstacles arise?

Strategic thinking requires a delicate balancing act between holding fast to your vision of winning while adjusting to the constant upheavals in the world around us. It also requires the development of new skills and ways of thinking. The ultimate goal is to develop strategic agility, or the ability to respond quickly to changing market conditions without losing focus on your vision of winning.

If you’re still doing strategic planning the old way, when the next big change hits your market or industry, don’t be surprised to find that you’re the one who gets left behind.

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Holly G GreenHolly is the CEO of THE HUMAN FACTOR, Inc. ( and is a highly sought after and acclaimed speaker, business consultant, and author. Her unique approach to creating strategic agility, helping others go slow to go fast, will change your thinking.

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Holly G Green




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No Comments

  1. RJ Johnson - 21st Century Appreciative Inquiry on January 21, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    I agree that strategic planning has for the most part long out lived its usefulness in our rapidly shifting world. I would just add the skill of improvisation to your list of strategic thinking skills. To be agile, you need to be able to adapt quickly, as in improv. However, I don’t believe that improv should be taught as a separate skill. It should be experienced in a real-world context first and then “discover” the concepts involved.
    Best regards,
    RJ Johnson

  2. Dana Baldwin on January 21, 2011 at 6:20 pm

    Holly is right in most of her analysis of strategic planning’s limitations. However, properly done, with the right kinds of questions being asked by the leader, the process of Simplified Strategic Planning is highly flexible and responsive. In this process, assumptions are questioned regularly, changes in strategies and actions/objectives are regularly made to respond to the quickly changing environment we now live in, and goals are set and, as needed, modified to respond to the changing environment. All this is done by challenging the team to think strategically and to be aware of the evolution of their markets quickly, so that mid-course changes can be made while the increment of change is small, not just once a year when the changes have grown much larger. Without a good framework to hang your strategies on, agility runs the risk of being so much hot air. As my favorite philosopher, Yogi Berra, is alleged to have said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might end up some place else.” If you don’t have a good, well-thought-out strategic plan, one that is dynamic and as flexible as it needs to be, you may be headed in the wrong direction, agile as you may be. The two go together, good planning and good agility – defined as the ability to understand and react to changes in the market as they occur.

  3. Chris on January 22, 2011 at 5:42 am

    I quite agree with you analysis of Strategic Planning. I have come upnwith a different response which I refer to as Strategic Learning. You can read more about at Strategic Learning is an ongoing process of adaptation. The less stable the environment, the faster the organization must turn the wheel. Ultimately, all four processes can feed each othe simultaneously.

  4. Geert de Hoogh on November 18, 2011 at 6:37 am

    Thanks Holly for your interesting view on strategic agility. I agree that traditional strategic planning processes have outlived their usefulness in current fast changing times.
    Indeed we should not abandon strategy formulation, on the contrary, but rather we should change the way how we do it.
    For those interested to learn a bit more about this topic, I recommend visiting 12manage’s pages on strategic agility and Black Swan Theory which are both particularly enlightening.

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