Strategic Planning is Dead

Faced with uncertainty about the future, many leaders’ first inclination is to invest in the research and expertise that will yield them a detailed strategic plan to guide their work. The problem is, most strategic plans are outdated before they begin. Leaders would be better served by building durable processes and skills to navigate change instead. 

The longstanding way of thinking about strategic plans requires deep investments of time and energy at every level of an organization. After months of strategic planning, managers and employees invest time and valuable cognitive load carefully setting goals only to find that they’re largely irrelevant by the end of the first quarter. It’s a demoralizing cycle that erodes culture, dampens motivation, and positions change not as a constant, but as an unwelcome and unexpected disruption. 

Going forward, the organizations that succeed will be those that thrive in change; they’ll embrace it as their constant reality and build systems accordingly. 

In this new world, traditional goal setting and strategic planning processes do not work because they incentivize leaders and team members alike to view change as a crisis, seeing it as an annoying force that prevents them from carrying out their plans. Worse, change and unexpected bumps along the way become convenient excuses for avoiding the very hard work of change. It seems to be in the nature of people to look for any available reason to avoid shifting their behaviors and beliefs, and that means that organizations must find ways to help people through the cognitive, emotional, and technical challenge of staying focused on the core work even when the core work is changing.  

But that doesn’t mean there is no good strategy and it doesn’t mean there should be no planning. As more organizations recognize the constancy of change and shift from what Laloux calls “command and control” to “sense and respond” approaches to strategy, teams still need  something to anchor and align around. This is not the place to replace something with nothing. We’ve seen our clients experience this tension over and over again, and to help navigate it effectively, we’ve designed both organization and individual-level alignment and performance systems designed for volatility and change. 

Change-Responsive Systems for Organizations

At the organization level, our Success and Sustainability Framework supports a progress monitoring cycle that allows teams to easily use directional data points to monitor progress and correct course without having to engineer a complicated set of metrics and measures. It incorporates five domains to provide a complete picture of success and sustainability: Impact, Reach, Satisfaction, Organizational Health, and Financial Sustainability. This framework is proving useful in for-profit and nonprofit settings, and is easy and common sense, yet comprehensive.

Any organization can use this universal progress monitoring framework across the five domains of impact, reach, satisfaction, organizational health and performance, and financial sustainability.

Outside Angle’s Success and Sustainability Framework helps organizations monitor and drive progress in a way that expects and is responsive to change.

  • In the Impact domain we look at whether the product(s) or service(s) the organization offers are achieving their intended result. 
  • In the Reach domain we look at whether the product(s) and service(s) are reaching their intended consumer, and whether and how fast this reach is growing.
  • In the Satisfaction domain we look at whether the users of the product(s) or service(s) are happy with them and would recommend them to others. We also check the perceptions of other key stakeholders depending on the context.
  • In the Organizational Health domain we look at the internal strength of the organization including culture, employee engagement, and performance.
  • Finally, in the Financial Sustainability domain we look at revenue growth, costs, profitability and other basic financial metrics over time.

Together, these domains create a comprehensive picture of progress through multiple lenses that can be populated with as much or as little information as is available at the time—from a rigorous roll-up of data and metrics to a back-of-the-envelope view sourced from staff in real time.

Change-Responsive Systems for Individual Goal Setting

At the individual level the same applies. In an uncertain environment, goals don’t always stick. If the organization itself is rapidly evolving, how can individual managers and staff possibly set six- or twelve-month goals that don’t change, too? Setting up an expectation otherwise is a recipe for disaster. It creates a dynamic where the organization is trying to evolve while the individual is motivated to keep doing what they were doing and stick with the plan. 

The answer is not to do away with goal setting entirely, or throw up our hands and kiss accountability goodbye. The answer is to level up these systems to focus on ongoing dialogue and the development of the skills that every employee needs to thrive in a dynamic environment. (We’ve written before about the essential skills of vision settingprocess planningrelationship building, and problem solving.

Our team helps organizations streamline and modernize performance management. Employees and managers focus on the practices that lead to the best results in times of uncertainty and change—practices like leaning into hard conversations, delegation, and decision making. They set direction and engage in ongoing dialogue to course-correct based on changes in context. In a constantly changing world of work, there are fewer and fewer roles where metrics are neat and tidy. Our approach embraces this reality rather than pushing against it.

The most beneficial part of these streamlined systems for monitoring progress and performance is their impact on culture. It is demoralizing for teams to have a strategy that they know is only on paper, or for employees to know that the goals they set are unlikely to ever be achieved. Instead, more responsive systems enable the focus to be on building trust and productive relationships, and bringing transparency to key data and information that allow for better decision making at all levels.

This approach is also great at addressing low performance by focusing on the practices that matter, and the actions that are most within our control. It makes it impossible for low performing employees to hide behind change as an excuse.

Organizations and teams that count on change and build that expectation into their plans are far more likely to succeed than those who remain entrenched in the strategic planning mindset of old. 

For a better understanding of Outside Angle’s approach to team alignment and performance management in practice, read about our work with Zoobean.