Many would say, don’t get the cart before the horse. Strategic planning, however, is a cycle. It’s like reading Finnegans Wake. No beginning and no end and you keep negotiating with the middle.
Some organizations have a great desire to grapple with their place in the world, in a market. That struggle of definition can, and perhaps should, take on two distinct, but complementary efforts.
First is the effort to define meaning in the context of the now. What are we doing today and how do we do that better. Work through issues and consequences as though long time does not matter, just next week or next quarter. Focus on what you know customers want today. The reason you do this is to avoid analysis paralysis. Strategic dialog is a process, not a point in time. It is a journey, not an answer. People want answers. By focusing on the now, they can gain some sense of grounding when asked to think about the future…
And, as they think about the future, it will increasingly influence the choices they make in the near term. Most organizations are horribly ill-equipped to talk about the future, and when they do, they do it with a deterministic bent and an overwrought absoluteness. In other words, they portray to their organization that they know what the future will be.
Well, they don’t, and what is needed is not deterministic mandates, but strategic dialog that helps people understand the shifting parameters that define the organization. But don’t let them get away from making decisions today because they don’t know what the future will be. The more they dialog about the uncertainties and driving forces of the future, the better equipped they will be to make decisions in the present. As they learn, they may well look back at the artifacts of previous work from a future vantage point and consider it naive or uninformed, and well they should. The one thing we know about the future with certainty is that more of the present will be behind us once we get there, and that will make everything in the past seem quaint or kindle a bit of nostalgia depending on the circumstances of the future.
So go out and do two things. Make some decisions about what you know today, and start thinking about the future in a robust way so the decisions you make tomorrow are better informed than those you make today. The biggest risk to strategy is thinking you know an answer to some long term question and acting on it, without looking to see if the world changed between knowing and executing. Your brain may say step, but before you put your foot down, see if there is a puddle or not where you just know there shouldn’t be one.