The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence ... it is to act with yesterday’s logic.
— Peter Drucker, 1991

Why conventional strategic planning is past its use by date

Right now, the primary way an organisation thinks about the future is by doing strategic planning, a formulaic, compliance based process focused on the plan as the major outcome. In this process, not much time is usually set aside for collaborative strategic thinking. It doesn't prepare any organisation for the future.

This way of thinking about the future has passed its use by date, yet most organisations are trapped in this process, seeing no other way to prepare for the future. They apply yesterday's thinking to new problems. They ask old questions that no longer matter. They develop old strategy for a new and challenging environment.

I have written about the need to re-frame strategic planning with foresight approaches for about 10 years. My book is all about how to infuse your existing strategy processes with foresight. Why does this matter?

The biggest problem with strategic planning is that it ignores the reality that people and organisational culture create the context within which strategy is developed and implemented. Leave people out of the development phase and strategy is almost certainly doomed to fail in the implementation phase. Forgetting about the power of culture often results in disconnects between what leaders and managers say and what they do and that will undermine implementation. The only way to engage people and understand culture in meaningful ways is to have conversations - to allow them to think strategically about the future that is being created.

My Experience with Planning

I ran strategic planning processes and drafted plans when I worked in universities. When I worked in faculties, I'd receive a reminder every year to update our plan for the next three years and to report on KPI achievement, fitting everything into neat little boxes. I remember thinking that the exercise seemed to have more to do with compliance than planning. When I was Director of Swinburne's planning unit, I was asked to include foresight in our planning framework, and I discovered the real nature of the tyranny of strategic planning. 

For the five years I was using foresight at Swinburne, I worked to change how we viewed strategy development and more importantly, how we created and communicated that strategy to to everyone in the university. For a whole lot of reasons that I describe in my book on Foresight Infused Strategy, I was often told "I see no point in this" and "our plan is clear and documented", and "we consider the future in our thinking". I asked them how they did that, but never got a proper answer. I thought perhaps their benchmark was the number of times they mentioned 'future' in their plan. 

When I asked whether or not staff were involved in the development of the plans, I usually received a response along the lines of "they were given an opportunity to comment". And, when I asked what informed their own thinking about the future, I realised I was committing a career-limiting faux pas! When a new Vice-Chancellor arrived who wasn't interested in foresight, we returned to conventional planning processes with the Executive Group in control. I left Swinburne then. 

I really believe that spending time on conventional strategic planning is wasted time. Instead we need to spend time having conversations about the future, giving people time to think - bringing them together to collaborate and co-create the future, the one that matters for your organisation, its culture and its context. The aim with conversations is not to produce a plan everyone ignores, but to create a shared narrative about your organisation's future that everyone uses to inform their decision making and actions today. 

Preparing for the future is no longer about strategy packaged in a neat box, created by senior managers who expect everyone in the organisation to implement it without question. It's about working with people to anticipate possible futures so they can co-create pathways to the future they want to emerge for your organisation. It's about putting people back at the centre of preparing for the future.

Bringing Integral to Strategy Development

I learned about integral theory when I studied Strategic Foresight at Swinburne. It was like a light bulb going on when it came to thinking about strategic planning. I realised that why conventional planning seemed so much like compliance was that it was. It was a process that was followed, often when it didn't make a lot of sense in a rapidly changing environment. Integral Theory and Integral Futures taught me that people and culture matter as much as process. That how we think about the future was as important as a strategy development process infused with foresight methods and tools.

Since then, I've been trying to make sure that people are always involved in the work I do, even though I rarely mentioned the term 'integral theory', focusing more on the steps involved in creating foresight infused strategy. In 2016, that changed.

I've said elsewhere on the site that any framework or model is only useful in context, if it helps better understand an issue or challenge today. It has to make sense to the people using it and it has to produce outcomes that make sense. Ken Wilber's version of integral isn't the only one, but his makes sense for me right now. My new conversation framework for working with people and organisations is framed with integral to bring people and process together, to make sure we can move beyond conventional strategic planning to a futures ready stance.