Strategic Planning - an Oxymoron?

Is “strategic planning” an oxymoron? Asking that question and considering an answer gives us a clearer way to look at strategic thinking that will make our planning more effective and make our businesses more profitable. Strategic thinking involves considering the probability of future events, while planning involves detailed descriptions of actions to be taken with current resources to achieve certain goals. How do strategy and planning combine to form a strategic plan? Or do they?

An oxymoron is a figure of speech that pairs two opposing words. Examples of an oxymoron are: old news, deafening silence, organized chaos, friendly fight, completely unfinished, absent presence, and alone together. To reach oxymoron status, strategy must not just be different, it must be the opposite of planning – actions to be taken to reach goals.

Strategy is deciding what is important. It is determining where you want to be. Strategy asks: in what arena will you will do best? Strategy requires computing the probability of future events. None of this is planning. The plan narrative describes how to move toward where you want to be – how to take actions toward accomplishing certain goals – with resources that you now have.

What is important to an owner is determined by the owner’s values, and, for the business, the owner’s values with respect to the business. For an owner, the success of the business will not only be the profitability of the business, but also the receipt personally of the direct benefit of owning the business. An owner’s strategy will define what is important and what needs to be done to deliver the benefit of owning the business to the owner. A statement of an owner’s strategy might be, for example, to own the business not more than five years with a sale for maximum value of the business interest placing the sale proceeds out of business risk and into the owner’s investment account.

Yet, even when owners do strategic planning, which is not often, I do not find a statement of owner strategy in the strategic plan. There are goals, presumably based on strategy, and the “strategic plan” is drafted as a long-term plan for the business with stated goals based on unexpressed assumptions about strategy. Many times when I review such a plan, the goals reflect no strategy other than a purpose to be as profitable as possible. I think this lack of thinking about strategy occurs because thinking about strategy is hard to do. But it is well worth doing.

Creating a strategy need not take a long time but it does take some contemplative thinking – that is the hard part and the part that invokes procrastination. For the sake of clarity, I recommend taking things in order of importance. Start with the values of the owner. Can the owner articulate the owner’s values? If not, the determination of what is important becomes impossible. What are the owner’s values with respect to the business? These of course will be determined by the values of the owner.

Once the owner can make a statement about what is important about the business to the owner, the owner should share these values with respect to the business with the other owners. This sharing requires the other owners also to have the ability to articulate their values with respect to the business. This process of the owners deciding about what is important about what the business does and where it does it is strategy, not planning. Most of the time it is not done, because the strategy step is skipped and the initial step begins with the planning process. What appears to be urgent (“we need a plan”) is attended to while determining and recognizing what is important (determining strategy) is ignored.

Returning to semantics, where the phrase “strategic planning” describes a situation where there is no strategic thinking and a plan narrative is written containing goals based on assumptions, then the phrase is an oxymoron. There is no strategy in that strategic plan. On the other hand, in the sadly unique case, where strategy and planning are two separate functions and documentation of strategy is a prerequisite for setting plan goals, “strategic planning” is not an oxymoron.