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Rethinking the trusted recipe: Infusing strategic planning with a dash more strategic thinking

Traditional strategic planning, much like flicking through a cookbook, is about first deciding WHAT we are aiming to cook. In the kitchen it might be a choice between duck l’orange or salt and pepper squid, while in the boardroom it may well be a larger banquet, with sales growth, profitability targets or entering new markets all on the menu. The starting point in both cases is determining the outcome we are seeking to achieve. 

The next step is then working backwards to determine the recipe to be followed (or HOW will we achieve the WHAT?). What are the key ingredients we need in terms of people and capital? What are the skills and strategies required and how will resources need to be allocated if the end result is going to achieve our goals and satisfy the appetites of our clients and shareholders?

This approach to strategic planning is a tried and tested model that can no doubt deliver great results. It is rational, analytical and methodical, neatly dividing the role of formulation of the plan, at the senior executive level, with the task of implementation by frontline managers and staff. However it does present some challenges…

  • It assumes that the future is reasonably predictable and that organisations have the ability to measure and monitor progress and make corrections quickly when required. Unfortunately most of us have experienced how external factors, such as a changing economic climate, can make even the best-planned strategic recipe sink like an undercooked soufflé.
  • While the divide between formulation and implementation might be neat, it misses the opportunity to capture the valuable experience and applied knowledge of lower-level managers and staff in the planning process, which can be very valuable in identifying the missing ingredients from the perfect profitability pie.
  • Finally it is based on the assumption that the outcomes we are aiming for are in fact the ‘right’ ones. Unfortunately many organisations are not particularly strategic when it comes to goal setting, continuing to opt for the same meat and three veg year after year.

So how might the traditional strategic planning process be infused with a little more strategic thinking to create a far more interesting and diverse strategic smorgasbord?

One option would be to take a cue from the Masterchef mystery box and start not with what we will aim to achieve, but rather with understanding the key ingredients we have at our disposal.

It might sound like a risky idea, but such an approach enables organisations to build success around what resources are available and what works, rather than spending time hunting for those missing ingredients or trying to fix what’s broken. 

One approach organisations are using to identify ‘hidden’ potential and develop more strategic and creative goals is Appreciative Inquiry. Rather than a planning process underpinned by SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats), the Appreciative Inquiry method instead focuses on SOAR (Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations and Results). 

By taking a broader view of all the elements already available in their organisational pantry (even those items right at the back which are assumed to be past their ‘best before’ date), organisations are better able to practice intelligent opportunism. This means that, in making decisions about how and where to channel their resources, they identify those that are best suited to the ingredients they have on hand and the environment in which they are operating.

This strengths-based approach encourages innovation and provides an opportunity to imagine new and stronger organisational outcomes. So, in this year’s strategic planning process, consider whether it’s time to ditch your organisation’s dog-eared recipe book and add a dash more strategic thought to your planning process?

Diarmid Lee