Dean Barber

The Problem with Strategic Plans

In Uncategorized on July 24, 2011 at 8:18 am

The fallacy of strategic planning is in the likelihood that anything real and substantive will come from it. I make this rather harsh and heretical statement because a strategic plan typically serves as a testament that something seemingly important has been accomplished when usually very little has.

More often than not, considerable time and money has been marshaled into an endeavor that may be impressive by outward appearance, but often does not provide for real-world solutions as how to get from Point A to Point B. In other words, no grounded action is spelled out or recommended.

As a result, few strategic plans are truly the meaty documents that they are billed. (I cannot help but recall the 1984 Wendy’s commercial – “Where’s the beef?”) In 150-page reports that some consultants so dearly like to charge for, there are perhaps 10 or 15 pages of meat. The rest is a whole lot of bun.

But it makes for good appearances. Indeed, that two-inch thick strategic plan will often be presented as evidence that a local economic developer is making a meaningful contribution to his or her community.

A Misguided Trophy

“A lot of communities will have a definition of success by simply developing a formal strategic plan. That is their end game,’ said John Turner, who heads economic development for Entergy Mississippi, Inc.

“But you don’t get true value out of a strategic plan unless you implement action to go with it. It’s almost like a trophy to some communities. Hey, this is my strategic plan. I have done something. But they are not focused on a return on investment.”

That is not to say that planning or strategic thinking is irrelevant. Truly I am not that much of a heretic. But I would submit that a shorter-term action plan or even, and this may sound vulgar to some ears, a sales plan is the most practical solution.

Now you might argue that this is all a matter of semantics, that one man’s strategic plan is another man’s action plan. But to my thinking, besides being shorter term in nature, an action plan  is more tactical in nature. It sets out clear, tangible steps that have to be taken with boots on the ground. (Don’t forget, I live in Texas.)

Busy Work vs Real Work

The emphasis is execution. We plan so that we can execute. We plan in order to act. Anything less is spinning your wheels, which unfortunately can be the norm for some economic development organizations.

“A failing of the economic development profession as a whole is that we get excited by the low-hanging fruit of activity rather than working harder to identify and act upon truly meaningful measures of impact and accomplishment,” said Mark Waterhouse with Connecticut-based Garnet Consulting Services. “Strategic planning often means you are just busy doing something.”

In other words, strategic planning can fall into that realm of busy work rather than real work.

Common Strategic plan: Further study should be undertaken to properly evaluate and coordinate a diverse group of stakeholders on the possibility of examining whether the resources are present and in sufficient strength that would enable Smallville, USA to become the Nightcrawler Capital of the World

Action plan: Let’s tear up Main Street tomorrow and start worm farms, and join the National Bass Anglers Association so we can market to all their members and tournaments.

Having lofty long-term visions are not bad things. But given the choice, I would rather bet on a horse that is running and winning than on a breeder who is planning to create the next Secretariat.

I have seen too many organizations get bogged down with planning to the degree that they are not doing much more than that. They want to study, plan and engineer, but not venture into any sort of outreach. For these folks, the journey is more important than the destination.

For most economic development organizations, a SWOT analysis is a good starting point. Knowing your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats gives you great insight on action that is to follow. Waterhouse modifies the SWOT formula somewhat by addressing strengths, weaknesses, issues and opportunities.

“First, that lets you end on an up-note (opportunities) rather than a down-note (threats). Secondly, not every issue is a threat – many are just issues that need to be acknowledged,” he said.

A Friend’s Way

One of the most talented local economic developers that I know, a friend in Alabama, said he authored what he calls a strategic plan only because he had to do it.

“I’ve been told that I must have a strategic plan. So I wrote one, and my board approved it. It’s one page long. I also prepare an annual plan. It’s also one page long.”

Now this economic developer has a track record of winning. I have no doubt that he plans out his work day and work week. But he doesn’t spend an inordinate amount of time fixated on planning. He is not caught up in doing busy work. Rather, he is busy doing real work. And he has the confidence of his board. My friend is a strategic doer.

Turner said communities will often pay consultants to develop strategic plans that are based on a SWOT analysis that accurately determines a community’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, but it ends there.

“They never go to the next step. And the problem is that they pay for this study. They probably read it once and then put it on the shelf or their desk and they never take the next step,” Turner said.

“When we work with the community (in Mississippi), we will ask if they have a strategic plan. If they do, that’s great, but we don’t ever recommend that they go out and actually do a formal strategic plan. We do say that you have to have an idea of where you want to go. And a lot of times by facilitating what becomes a working plan, their strategies will come out.”

Action Agenda

Waterhouse also emphasizes the action component to the plans that he helps communities develop. Rather than a strategic plan, he develops an “action agenda,” based off the findings from his modified SWOT analysis. The action agenda features specific initiatives that communities are essentially directed to pursue.

“You really shouldn’t have more than 15 initiatives for any one place, but that should keep you busy for the next three to five years,” he said.

Coming up with meaningful recommendations entails time consuming data collection, interviewing, analysis and “poking around in peoples’ heads,” Waterhouse said.

“In the end, the question is then whether putting it down on paper is of great value,” he said.

My take as a consultant: If your investigative findings lead to a call for action with attainable results, which is the basis for Waterhouse’s philosophy on planning, then by all means put it down on paper. By doing so, you probably are providing great value.

Turner says the blame for ill-fated strategic plans without strong action components does not always lie with consultants.

“I have watched and listened to the dynamics that have taken place. And often it is the case that the communities force the consultants to do it the way they want to do it,” Turner said. “I have heard consultants try to get to more tangible results, but that is not what the community wanted to pay them for.”

Rather, the economic developer was seeking that trophy, a report by which to impress by the fact that is was done.

In the end, it is real results that matter. Periodically, I catch myself revisiting a quote from a historic strategic doer, President and General Andrew Jackson, aka “Old Hickory.”

“Take time to deliberate; but when the time for action arrives, stop thinking and go in.”

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a site selection and economic development consulting firm in Red Oak, Texas — www.barberadvisors.com  You can reach him at dbarber@barberadvisors.com or at 972-890-3733.

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  1. […] truly a bunch of horse hockey.  I never said anything of the kind. I would welcome you to read “The Problem with Strategic Plans” and be the […]

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