Strategic Thinking for Strategic Planning

Strategic planning describes a lot of what we do, yet we don’t use the term strategic planning to describe our approach. Instead, our focus is on strategic thinking. Here’s why you might want to do the same.

Strategic planning is used as a structured way to transform goals into action plans and frame decisions. That’s the shorthand. It’s now so popular that you’ll find strategic planning done within organizations large and small and is often considered a prerequisite for receiving funding or investment.

Yet, strategic planning is often done poorly — not by method but style. It’s not fit for purpose or designed for the conditions it is meant to serve. That has much to do with its history.

Strategic Planning: A Short History

Strategic planning has its roots in military strategy and has evolved as something that’s now a core part of organizational management in corporate, healthcare, non-profits and foundations.

  1. Early Military Origins: The origins of strategic planning can be traced back to ancient civilizations. Military leaders, such as Sun Tzu in ancient China and Carl von Clausewitz in 19th-century Prussia, developed principles and techniques for strategic thinking and planning in warfare. Their works emphasized the importance of assessing the environment, understanding the enemy, and aligning resources effectively.
  2. Industrial Revolution and Business Strategy: The concept of strategic planning began to find its way into the business world during the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As industrialization increased competition, companies started adopting strategies to gain a competitive edge. Key figures like Alfred Sloan of General Motors and Henry Ford played significant roles in shaping early business strategy.
  3. Post-World War II: The aftermath of World War II saw a shift in strategic planning. Military planning techniques, such as scenario planning, were adapted for business use. This expanded over the following decades and saw the introduction of formalized processes like SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis and the Boston Consulting Group’s growth-share matrix.
  4. Emergence of Strategic Management: In the 1980s and 1990s, strategic planning evolved into strategic management. The focus shifted from a rigid, long-term planning approach to a more flexible, adaptive, and ongoing strategic management process. Scholars like Michael Porter and Gary Hamel significantly contributed to strategic management theories during this period. In the 2000’s Agile and lean methodologies, as well as the concept of disruptive innovation emerged along with an increasing emphasis on environmental sustainability, social responsibility, and stakeholder engagement in strategic decision-making.

Understanding where strategic planning comes from aids us in framing where we are and what comes next with strategic planning.

Strategic Design for Strategic Planning

Strategy is about going from here to there. It helps you figure out where ‘here’ is and where is ‘there’, explores ways to get from one to the other, and embeds a means to tell the story of your journey and know where you are.

As designers, we look to shape things; an organizational journey is no different. We design it by asking specific questions about and exploring where an organization is:

  1. What do you have (assets, people, resources, etc.)? Most organizations have a wealth of things to draw on. They often lack an effective use of what they have to support their strategy. Taking an inventory of your assets and talent is a first start.
  2. What is your situation? Look at the context, climate, unique and shared challenges of the organization and the opportunities to act. Where are the constraints, pressures, and demands on your energy?
  3. What are your needs, challenges, desires, and wants? Looking at these collectively helps align different aspects of an organization’s aspirations and concerns together. The work here is defining what goals you want to pursue and what you value and is valued.
  4. What do the present, emerging, and longer-term futures look like? This means conducting environmental scans and foresight analyses to ensure you’re designing for the emerging future rather than planning for a past present. This failure to anticipate appropriately is one of the biggest mistakes organizations make.
  5. What are the outputs, outcomes and influence (impact) of importance? This is your evaluation plan and looks at what measures, metrics, tools, and approaches best fit with helping you attend to what you’re doing, assist in decision-making, and demonstrate success.
  6. How will you learn and adapt? This frames the data you gather — the things you pay attention to — and the way you connect that to your situations and goals and decide what to do while you’re doing it.
  7. How might you connect all of this? Strategic design means fitting the plans to the purpose to achieve certain outcomes.

Putting all of this together is where strategic thinking comes in.

Strategic thinking is the mindset you bring to all of this. It’s about knowing yourself, wayfinding (knowing where you are and want to go), and an openness to learning.

Strategic Planning for Living Systems

Living Systems

The fault in traditional strategic planning is a mindset that assumes were are operating in a controlled system where we can produce, measure, and control things with high reliability over time. This implies systems that are stable, predictable, and without many extraneous factors. Think of an industrial factory. Much strategic planning in human systems has been done with this mindset, and it’s had detrimental effects.

While there is evidence that strategic planning can moderate effects on performance, much of that requires a strict set of parameters. In other words, we need to design-in narrow boundaries and methods. That might work for some organizations and situations with more closely connected ties between activities, outputs, and outcomes — (e.g., surgical delivery, service wait times). It’s far more difficult when those outcomes and outputs are tied to more complex, unpredictable things (e.g., public health practices, applied learning).

But as others have noted, we no longer live in industrial times. Most human service organizations are dealing with complexity. We don’t work the same way, and work conditions and the employment and skills markets are changing dramatically. We have rapidly evolving tools to shape work, and the environmental conditions — from COVID to wildfire smoke or extreme weather — are substantially different from year to year.

None of these factors support traditional 5-year planning cycles using traditional methods.

Planning now involves complexity considerations. Words like resilience, adaptation, learning, innovation, collaboration, co-creation, and flexibility are now part of the conversation around planning. This is a different way of planning, and it can be designed into your organization. It has to be designed in if it’s to work.

This requires the enrolment of your teams, boards, senior leaders, and the entire organization. It involves systems to learn, evaluation plans that respond, and principles to guide the process.

Yet, it is possible. It also makes your organization more resilient and your plans more feasible, realistic and effective in helping you get from here to there.

Developing Strategic Thinking and the Adaptive Mindset

Here are some simple ways to build this mindset. It’s simple, but not always easy without help.

Developing an open, flexible, and adaptive growth mindset involves cultivating certain attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that support continuous learning, resilience, and personal development. Here are some key elements involved in developing such a mindset:

  1. Embrace a Learning Orientation: Adopt a mindset that sees challenges, failures, and setbacks as opportunities for growth and learning. Understand that abilities and intelligence can be developed through effort and practice.
  2. Emphasize the Power of Yet: Use the word “yet” to reframe limitations as temporary and view them as opportunities for improvement. For example, instead of saying “I can’t do this,” say “I can’t do this yet, but I’m working on it.”
  3. Develop Self-Awareness: Reflect on your strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement. Recognize your fixed mindset triggers (e.g., fear of failure, seeking validation) and consciously shift your thinking towards a growth mindset.
  4. Embrace Challenges: Welcome challenges that push you out of your comfort zone. Embracing challenges helps you develop new skills and fosters a mindset of continuous improvement.
  5. Cultivate Resilience: Understand that setbacks and failures are a natural part of the learning process. Focus on bouncing back from setbacks, learning from them, and persevering despite difficulties.
  6. Emphasize Effort and Process: Recognize the importance of effort, hard work, and effective strategies in achieving success. Shift the focus from outcomes to the journey, and celebrate progress and effort rather than just the end result.
  7. Embrace Feedback: Be open to receiving feedback and view it as an opportunity to learn and grow. Actively seek feedback from others and use it to identify areas for improvement.
  8. Foster Curiosity: Ask questions regularly and often. Approaching your situations like a child might can help because we’ll ask questions, rather than presume answers.
  9. Develop a Growth-Oriented Network: Surround yourself with individuals who have a growth mindset and who support and encourage your development. Engage in discussions and collaborations that challenge your thinking and inspire growth.
  10. Practice Self-Reflection: Regularly reflect on your progress, achievements, and areas where you can further develop a growth mindset. Consider journaling, meditation, or other self-reflective practices to deepen your self-awareness.

Remember that developing a growth mindset is an ongoing process that requires consistent effort and self-reflection. By intentionally cultivating these elements, you can foster an open, flexible, and adaptive mindset that supports your personal and professional growth.

Strategic planning helps direct our focus. A good strategic plan, developed with complexity and living systems in mind, can help us find, clarify, and achieve that focus and connect your here to a better, more sustainable there.

We work with organizations and their leaders to design and implement strategic plans that are fit for purpose. If you want help in designing for the future and success, contact us; we can help.

Scroll to Top