“Plans are nothing. Planning is everything,” Dwight Eisenhower once said. I often cite this quote to illustrate one of the most important principles of strategic planning: although the written plan itself is a very useful record of information and decisions, there are far more important aspects of a planning process.
First, a dedicated planning process provides a time, place and focus for the organization to consider critical issues. Such issues are often subtle. They may not shout for attention the way urgent issues do. Urgency implies a pressing demand, in a temporal sense, that requires immediate action, but which may not be important in the long term. Many of us are consumed by the continuous stream of urgent issues and then don’t get around to addressing the truly important ones.
By contrast, a strategic planning process allows for time to search out the critical issues facing the organization. An illuminating observation comes from the legendary journalist Edward Murrow: “The obscure we see eventually. The completely apparent takes longer.”
Another benefit of a dedicated planning process is that it provides an opportunity for dialogue about these critical issues. Often in the press of everyday demands, we may have little time or patience to seek out differing viewpoints, explore underlying factors or resolve any conflicts that may surface.
This highlights another benefit of a structured planning process: the opportunity to resolve conflicts. Many people either fear conflict or lack the skills to deal with it in a constructive manner. Problems or disagreements may go unresolved for months or even years. Unresolved conflicts drain energy and can pose a serious handicap to an organization’s success.
Unresolved problems result in “simmering” situations that may lead to a crisis-by-crisis management approach, certainly not the best way to solve complex problems. Having a structured planning process with a skilled planning facilitator provides a safe forum for conflict resolution. Some degree of conflict in organizations is inevitable. In fact, it is normal and healthy, as it indicates independent thinking. Dealing with conflict in a constructive manner is an essential aspect of good management.
Another major benefit of a structured planning process is its educational value. Participants learn together as they research, study and analyze information.
It is excellent professional development for employees at every level. Younger or newer participants benefit from hearing the experience and wisdom of their senior colleagues. The veterans benefit from their counterparts’ fresh eyes and new ideas. All parties have the opportunity to expand their perspective and make a contribution.
Team building is another desirable outcome of a good planning process. Working together in a positive and constructive manner, addressing critical issues, making decisions by consensus and charting the future course of the organization are very satisfying and meaningful, ideally even inspiring and motivating. The fiber of a team can be profoundly strengthened by the collaborative experience, emotional connection and shared sense of responsibility inherent in planning.
Practicing the discipline of thinking strategically is another key benefit. This is the essence of a systematic planning process. It provides a structure and discipline that asks important questions and requires thoughtful answers. Improving people’s critical thinking skills has far-reaching benefits, as such skills are transferable to every level and function in the organization. Thinking strategically is truly the fundamental purpose of strategic planning.