Confusing “STRATEGY”…with planning


The saying “Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail” can be true or false depending on the planning process. Have you ever been in a planning meeting (disguised as a “Strategy Meeting”) that was nothing more than a pontificating brain storming session? In other words it was just an assembly of people talking about what they’d like to do…versus agreeing on execution steps. I’ve always asserted that “Strategic Meetings” are where Leadership, Accountability and Execution take center stage; it’s where everyone walks out the room with their individual mission. I laugh to myself sometimes when I remember scheduling strategic meetings with my sales leadership team and feeling this sense of anxiety from them because they knew the meeting would demand accountability. My strategic meetings weren’t about planning; they were about task and execution. It’s my feeling the reason why most people hate meetings is that the meeting is often disguised as a strategy session when in reality it was formed to be a brainstorming pontification of “creative ideas”. I apologize if I’m coming across negative or perturbed, but I think many of you understand my frustration when you expect to receive more actionable results from a strategy session. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with planning and I do not want to misconstrue my temperament in suggesting preparation/planning is a waste of time, I do agree “Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail” when it’s NOT costumed as a strategic session. Ian Symmonds of Ian Symmonds & Associates (a comprehensive research, consulting, and thought leadership firm for schools, colleges, and non-profits) nails it perfectly distinguishing “Strategy” & “Planning”:

Confusing Strategy with Planning

We often find that “strategy” and “planning” are referred to as the same activity by clients and colleagues. Perhaps it is because we often refer to “strategic planning” as an activity that most schools and colleges undertake every few years.

The reality is that they are very different exercises.

  • Strategy is making tough choices to inspire a preferred future.
  • Planning is the intentional sequencing of those choices.
  • Strategic Planning is the process of identifying both strategic and writing the plan.

And, leadership is required to pull off all three exercises.

Don’t confuse activity with meaning. Strategy precedes the plan. And, if you write a plan without a cogent strategy, than it is not likely to create a better tomorrow for the organization. The truth is most schools and colleges fail in the area of making the tough decisions to inspire a preferred future. They focus on collaboration, inclusion, and participation of internal stakeholders, but fail to see that the real opportunities available to them are going to take courage. Interestingly, most of the tough choices come from external environments, which is why it is often hard for organizations to act upon them.

Mr. Symmonds hits a point that I’d like to expand on and it’s this idea that activity has meaning (in his words “Don’t confuse activity with meaning”). We see this often in corporate America where an important “strategic meeting” is formed to discuss a critical business decision, and the decision is being S.W.O.T. analyzed, brainstormed, and pontificated on only to be tabled for another meeting to agree on the final answer to the original decision. So, essentially you had a lot of activity that peeled back the onion of the decision…but strategically no one made the call. Earlier in this post I declared there are 3 components required to have an effective strategic meeting: Leadership, Accountability, and Execution. Without “LAE” you have a planning meeting that’s disguised as a strategy meeting that causes a backlash against having meetings.

Strategy is about EXECUTION

Strategy is a self-fulfilling prophecy in my humble opinion. When I ran track in college the coach would tell me to “Vision yourself crossing the finish line 1st”, now an analogy I would never forget. Any and all strategic initiatives should envision the finish line and the accountability steps to get there. Colin Powell (Retired 4-Star General and Former Secretary of State) from his book “Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell” states the “Zeal to Execute…from Strategy”:

“Many leaders focus first and foremost on their organization’s ideas-its goals, vision, mission statement, and so on. And to be fair, this is a large part of what they’re hired and paid to do. Unfortunately, though, many leaders fail to follow through. They consider the implementation of their ideas as a task mostly for other people. (Perhaps some of them think that the sheer power of their ideas will assure success.) Execution of the plan becomes an afterthought. And that is why so many grand plans never make it out of the starting gate.”

What Secretary of State Colin Powell is saying is Execution Matters. A bonafide strategic plan has to have as Mr. Powell puts it a zeal to execute. There’s little sense in even articulating a mission, or laying out a battle plan, unless you are prepared to pursue that mission and fight that battle with complete commitment. In other words, unless you’re unequivocally committed to a path, don’t even go there. While execution is the most important aspect of strategy we cannot forget that there’s an operational component to strategy that has to be in place in order for execution to be successful. While most strategic thinking takes place at the brain trust level of an organization, execution is typically carried out by mid-level management in an operational process. Defining the “carry out” objectives to mid-level managers is the job of senior management. These objectives cannot be ambiguous and unclear otherwise the execution part of the strategy will fail. For example, an objective is a result expected by the end of the sales (or other designated) cycle. At the beginning of that cycle there was a clear and specific (no ambiguity) communication of the result we wanted to occur by the end of the cycle (execution). After a strategy session there should be a clear definition of objectives in the execution phase of the strategy…leaving room for ambiguity or self-interpretation will negatively impact the desired result. The next step in the operational process of the strategy is assigning responsibilities…or as I like to say “the accountability phase”. The slippage of not assigning tasks/responsibilities after each strategy session will lead to project or performance failure, this is one of the main distinguishing factors between “Strategy” & “Planning” because typically planning meetings turn out to be think-tank brainstorming sessions. Senior leaders of an organization should break down the operational objectives into pieces and hand out these objectives in bite size manageable chunks to ensure there’s a realistic outcome for positive performance. You see this often times when execution orders are given after a strategy session in a “20-Page Dictation” and the receiver of this order is left confused, overwhelmed, and frustrated…which results in very little execution.

Successful leaders/businesses understand the difference between “Strategy” & “Planning”, and balance the two superbly. While planning is striving to interpret what the strategy (execution phase) will look like (e.g. crossing that finish line), we should never confuse “activity” for “meaning”. Without Leadership, Accountability, and Execution you do not have a strategy…you in essence have a set of brilliant ideas that will fade before everyone leaves work.

Steps Developing Strategy (Execution)

  • Establish the desired outcome for the strategy. An outcome is something that each colleague will take away from the meeting.
  • State the purpose and desired outcome of the meeting at the top of the agenda. This helps colleagues determine whether they should attend.
  • Structure the content of the strategy session to support its outcomes. Determine the type of process and action desired to achieve the expected result.
  • Avoid the “information only”, “discussion only”, and “decisions made for next meeting” conversations. These wastes of time verbiage should not be included in a strategy session.
  • Ensure there’s accountability for each colleague in attendance at the meeting. Regular process reports after each strategic meeting will help ensure execution goals are met. If deadlines are being missed, ask the person for his/her assessment of why this happening and what will be done to correct the situation.
  • Most importantly, ensure that you are keeping all stakeholders involved post strategy session so that feedback on milestones are consistently tracked. This not only helps keep everyone informed of execution status, it also keeps everyone inspired and focused to achieve a positive outcome/result. 

Confusing “STRATEGY”…with planning

Thank you so much!

Andre’ Harrell
AH2 & Beyond Consulting

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