Lord willing and the river don't rise [or the case for agile strategic planning]

Image of river with title: Lord willing and the river don't rise or the case for agile strategic planning

Image of river with title: Lord willing and the river don't rise or the case for agile strategic planning

I love a good plan. I love the calm that fills me when I know there is a plan, written down, with incredible detail. Plans make me feel warm and cozy. I can gleefully spend days making a packing list or a detailed itinerary for every minute of a trip. I even love long days of strategic planning meetings. 

Hi, I’m Brandi.

I’m addicted to planning.

Addicted to planning? Yep, that’s me. Addicted to the plan itself? I’m recovering from that addiction. I’ve learned the hard way (hello volcanic ash floating all over Europe, grounding all planes for days) that even best plans must change.

This addiction serves my clients very, very well.  I work with savvy leaders who are fiercely committed to changing their corner of the world.  You don’t get to change the world without purpose, intention, grit-- and a plan.  

But being fiercely committed to changing the world means that plans absolutely must change too.

A typical strategic plan covers a business’ goals and objectives for 2-5 years, is written in great detail, and may or may not be relevant tomorrow.

Despite the uncertain relevance, organizational leaders routinely invest weeks (or months) of meetings, numerous staff hours, and lots of money on developing strategic plans. With such a massive investment of time, money (and perhaps a bit of hubris), those strategic plans have to last a while.

Plans and all that are fine, but not changing them for years? My grandma would tell you, that’s not going to work out well in the real world.

Every time I tell my grandma something I intend to do, she points out the problem with plans. “Lord willing, and the river don’t rise,” she quips. (Full disclosure--I hear that a lot because, I love planning). While she’s no fancy business consultant, she’s learned a few things about how the world works--a packing list and itinerary mean nothing without a map or a compass or the weather forecast or knowledge of local customs. The river could flood, and then what? If all I’ve got is a well-packed bag, I’m screwed.

Have you bought into the belief that you can make a detailed plan that will actually be relevant for years to come?  

Probably.

Me too.

It’s the grand illusion that we all love--that writing something down on paper somehow guarantees that we will achieve our goals. And because of our love for this illusion, we turn it into organizational dogma.

It’s time to have a little come-to-Jesus moment--

Plans are the least important part of strategic planning.

The most important part of strategic planning is the people who do the planning.

And it’s the magic that happens when those people are given the freedom and the responsibility to
understand the vision,

dream about what’s possible,
explore ideas,
problem-solve,
bring their best selves,
design a way forward.

Strategic planning isn’t for you, it’s for your team. And it's not about making a plan.

You, the fearless leader, already know what your priorities are, and you probably have a strong vision of what it will take to make it all happen. But unless you are intentional about including your team in the co-creation of strategy, they probably don’t have any idea what’s really in your head. Research by the firm BetterWorks suggests that only 7% of employees report fully understanding their organization's business strategies and what’s expected of them to help achieve company goals.

In order to be actively invested in the strategy, people need to experience ownership of the process.

When people get clear on the opportunities and challenges ahead and get real about what it will take to make change happen, the result is an agile and mission-driven strategy that will push all the boundaries. And you’ll have a team of people on fire to make it happen.

But, here’s the thing about any strategic planning process, inevitably, a plan will be made. Acronym-riddled goals will be developed--KPIs or SMART goals or OKRs (BTW: OKRs, or Objectives and Key Results are my personal favorite and the goal framework I always recommend.)

People need to have something tangible. Plans can be useful.

The real difference between a mission-driven strategy that is responsive to changing circumstances and a static strategic plan that collects dust comes down to a nuanced question--

Do you prioritize people or plans?

I’m guessing that in your heart of hearts, you absolutely, no doubt, 100% believe that it’s people.

This belief is probably the root of your frustration with strategic plans. Most strategic planning efforts result in static plans that quickly become irrelevant because they prioritize the plan, not the people.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

You can have a strategy that guides your actions, shapes priorities, AND is flexible enough to change when it no longer serves the mission or the people actually doing the work. (You’ll also need some measurable indicators and real data so you know when it’s time to make a change and to avoid the other end of the extreme--a strategic plan that changes willy nilly every time a new idea pops up).

Strategic planning that results in a mission-driven strategy starts with an agile and purposeful approach to leadership

Your strategy (and the plan that makes it real), should answer some key questions. Enter your email address below to download “6 questions for your strategic plan” to evaluate the effectiveness of your current strategic plan.