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This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

Let's talk about strategic planning: what it is and what it's not.

I like to think of strategic planning simply as identifying and then acting on the things you need to do to reach your vision.

Strategic planning is a disciplined effort that produces fundamental decisions and actions that shape and guide what an organization is, who it serves, what it does, and why it does it – all with a focus on the future.

Simply put, it is the discipline to look before we leap. And it really is a discipline.

When my son was in daycare, his teacher conducted the Stanford marshmallow experiment, which involves marshmallows and the promise of more marshmallows to come. Each child is given a choice: eat one marshmallow now and get none later or wait 15 minutes and get two marshmallows.

A small minority waited for two, but most of the children aged five and under ate the one marshmallow now because they couldn't conceptualize the meaning of "15 minutes from now."

Unfortunately, that is how many managers, executives, and business organizations think and behave as well (way past the age of five). Too often we want one marshmallow now, even knowing that if we just wait a little bit we will get two marshmallows. This can be especially true in publicly traded companies where the emphasis is on returns now versus a year from now. Too often this rewards short-term behaviours for short-term gains at the cost of long-term success.

In this kind of environment, it's difficult not just to have a strategic plan, but to think and behave strategically.

So what is a strategic plan? The strategic plan is a document to communicate with the organization: it describes the organization's goals, the actions needed to achieve those goals, and all the other critical elements developed during the planning exercise.

Note that having a strategic plan and doing strategic planning is not the same as strategic management. There are many different frameworks and methodologies for strategic planning and management. Most of these methodologies follow a similar pattern and have common attributes. Many frameworks cycle through some variation on the following basic phases:

  • The analysis or assessment phase: developing an understanding of the current internal and external environment.
  • The strategy formulation phase: developing high-level strategy and documenting a basic organization level strategic plan.
  • The strategic execution phase: translating the high-level plan into more operational planning and action items.
  • The evaluation or sustainment/management phase: ongoing evaluation and refinement.

Most organizations never get to phases three and four. In my own experience, most organizations never get to phase two, leaving them in a constant phase one discussion that never ends and never achieves any results.

I once worked for a company that insisted that every division have a strategic plan, which would roll up to the corporate level plan. Great idea, but thick with problems, the first one being that no one had any idea what the corporate strategy was or whether their divisional strategy fit in with it.

Finally, the process for reviewing the strategies after the initial submissions did not exist. It was up to each division to carry through. How successful do you think those strategies were? If you guessed "not at all," you guessed right. The "strategic plans" were nothing more than an exercise to satisfy someone somewhere that everyone had a strategy. Once delivered, those documents were forgotten, and it was right back to business as usual, which, in this case, meant focusing on today's delivery and revenue recognition while ignoring tomorrow.

Not only was there no plan execution or follow-up, I'd argue that effectively, there was no plan to begin with.

As an executive and a consultant, I've run across numerous business owners and leaders who bristle when I make comments like, "The vast majority of businesses operate without a plan."

A common response is, "Well, I have a plan. It's not a formal plan, and most of it's in my head, but I have a plan."

They don't have a plan. They have a thought. Until it moves from your mind to the canvas, you don't have art. Until you move to the canvas, you can't follow ART. Andy Warhol never had an exhibit consisting of all empty walls and entitled, "Stuff I'm Thinking about Painting." Unless you've committed your plans to some physical medium, you don't have a plan.

There is tremendous power in writing things down. It almost feels like magic. Maybe when you write things down you, are saying to the universe, "This is what I want. Won't you help me get there?" And the universe responds in kind. Maybe in writing it down, it becomes more real to you (and others). "Okay, this isn't just an idea any more. I've written it down, so now I have to do it." Maybe it's no more complicated than this: if you don't write it down, you'll forget it. Just don't forget to write it down.

Jon Umstead is author of Business is ART. He holds a Bachelor degree in Management Science and an Executive MBA. With over 30 years of professional experience, he has managed teams as small as four employees to one as large as 700.