I’m currently doing two projects that involve the use of strategic thinking: I’m working with a government entity’s advisory board to draft a strategic plan, and I’m working with a leader in a nonprofit help create a work plan for her department’s initiatives. Though their organizational contexts are very different, both efforts are rooted in addressing the same pain. Their organizations have been reactive, acting in the moment and addressing problems as they appear. Both would like to be more proactive by planning ahead and anticipating problems.
I think we intuitively know that attacking our work with a proactive approach gives our organization a better chance of succeeding in the long term (though we may balk at the work entailed in such planning). The use of strategic thinking, and involving stakeholders in the process in a meaningful way, is the epitome of taking a proactive stance. Strategic thinking in the context of a strategic planning session (with or without an external consultant) offers a lot of benefits: it helps you to look toward the future, anticipate internal and external opportunities and challenges, and plan for them. It also helps team members to coordinate their activities while fostering teamwork. And if the plan is aligned with the performance evaluation system, it helps team members to make the connection between their individual performance goals and overall organizational goals. And the process of creating a shared strategic plan enhances buy in and can help strengthen relationships.
Ultimately, a formal strategic planning process provides you with documents that outline your main goals, intended actions, roles, resources needed, and reasonable time-frames. These documents can serve as guides for both program implementation and evaluation. They help you to know where the organization is going and what must be contributed to reach the objectives.
But while research shows that organizations with formal plans generally do better than those without them, these organizations must also take care to ensure that such strategic plans are not rigidly enforced. Combining formal planning with ongoing informal planning is crucial; this informal planning can take the form of leadership scanning the horizon and reflecting, team conversations addressing the viability of pre-planned goals, etc. This can help ensure that your strategic plan is a nimble one. Such informal planning allows for day-to-day adaptation that uses new information and opportunities, giving the organization a chance to respond to external and internal environmental changes.
So “Hooray!” I say for the proactive approach. It most cases it has its place. But being reactive, in the form of informal planning, has its benefits, as well.