Revitalizing Your Planning Process

| Published by Mark Akerley under Sigma Resource Group Articles |

An organization’s first experience with strategic planning is usually very exiting, filled with optimism and enthusiasm, and can even be emotional for many. Hard work, yes, but new ideas are vigorously discussed and debated, “aha’s” are frequent, and people willingly step forward and volunteer to be part of the process. However, a common complaint we hear about strategic planning is that each successive year of the process, especially the annual update or rollover, becomes less interesting. In some cases it is so uninteresting and uninspiring that it becomes a perfunctory exercise of “business as usual”; and in the worst case, a waste of time.

Of course we all know the value of strategic planning and why, competitively, we must do it well. To revitalize the strategic planning process we must see it as more than just a business process. It should be viewed as a continuous learning opportunity, and a process that drives learning throughout the organization. Companies that do this well, e.g. GE, Xerox, Hewlett-Packard, to name a few, have shown that organizational learning and the rate of learning is a competitive advantage – an advantage that enables them to get services and products to customers faster, and more profitably than their competitors.

Organizational learning is not a new idea. People such as Chris Argyris, Warren Bennis, and Burt Nanus have been talking and writing about it for years. However, buying into the concept and putting it into practice has been difficult for most organizations. Perhaps the best known work in this area over the past several years has been done by Peter Senge in his book The Fifth Discipline, The Art & Practice Of The Learning Organization. In it he presents five major ingredients, or “disciplines”, that characterize a learning organization:

Systems Thinking
Mental Models
Personal Mastery
Team Learning
Shared Vision

He summarizes that organizations that perform less than satisfactorily, do so not so much as a result of external factors, but because they suffer from internal “learning deficiencies”, which in business can be fatal. Overcoming these deficiencies, by becoming a learning organization, is the key to remaining competitive and creating new opportunities for growth and development. Learning then, really becomes a strategy, and strategy becomes learning. One of the best ways to put this concept and each of the disciplines to use, is through the strategic planning process. Following is a brief description of each discipline with practical examples of how to practice them.

Systems Thinking – This discipline has to do with looking at the interrelatedness of forces – typically people, processes, technology, and change – and seeing them as part of a common process or system. It is seeing or searching for the “big picture” and understanding that
everything is connected to everything else.

To operationalize this discipline in the strategic planning process, planning teams can identify and chart the major business processes of the organization, and then step back to see how they “connect”. They can then ask – “if we eliminate, simplify, change, or combine any steps or elements in the process (or create new steps) …. what impact will this have on every stakeholder in the organization – if the impact is negative, how can we change it to positive or neutral – are the short term gains from any process change worth the long term impact – will a change in one process affect another.”

Another systems thinking and planning process exercise, for mature planning teams, is to state – “our recent success is temporary” – and then ask – “what should we be doing now to help us get through or avoid the next business turndown?”

Mental Models – Mental models are the images, assumptions and beliefs we carry in our minds about ourselves, other people, institutions, and virtually everything else in our individual worlds. They affect the way we think about and react to just about everything. The implication of mental models on strategic planning is enormous. For example, many companies are attempting to improve organizational effectiveness by instituting participative management and increasing employee empowerment. While some have been highly successful in this area, others have not; even though success stories and “how to” data are widespread and easily accessible. The differences in results typically have little to do with the application of techniques and implementation plans. Rather, they have much more to do with beliefs , or mental models, of what the organization (management) really thinks about employees in general, i.e. employees are generally lazy, self-centered, and limited in taking on more responsibility (X-theory), or, employees are generally hard working, trustworthy, and looking for results and fulfillment in their jobs (Y-theory), or perhaps some case in between. Mental models, of course will not only affect the results of strategy implementation, they will affect strategy development as well.

To benefit from this discipline in the planning process, planning teams need to occasionally question their mental models. An exercise to get at this is to identify all organization stakeholders (employees, customers, suppliers, regulators, competitors, etc.), and then ask – what do we think about each of these groups in terms of strengths, weaknesses, and impact on our organization – why do we think this way, and do we have conclusive evidence to support our beliefs and mental models? Such an exercise and team discussion may possibly lead to the creation of a new strategy or the revision of an existing one.

Personal Mastery – Of Senge’s five disciplines this may be the one that is most recognized and perhaps most frequently acted upon at the individual level. It is the ability to learn and apply the principles of a skill, act, or body of knowledge, with significant success and results.

One of the best ways to apply this discipline to planning is to occasionally audit your entire planning system, from strategy to tactics implementation. An impartial assessor may be appropriate here, and a few questions to explore with the planning team are – what payoffs have we achieved from our planning system over the last xx (time frame) – what are the prices for these results and for the system – what have we learned about planning as a system, and have we capitalized or changed based on lessons learned – how has our system responded to change from both within and outside of the organization – have any of our planning tools changed recently; if not, why not – how personally satisfied is each member of the planning team with the system, with his/her role and responsibilities – what suggestions do we have to make the process more efficient and effective-.

Team Learning – Team learning is about enhancing a team’s capacity to think, build shared meaning, and act effectively. It goes beyond team building, i.e. creating collaboration and consensus, to improving capabilities; in this case to think strategically and build comprehensive strategic plans.

Open, honest, and candid dialogue is always at the root of good strategy; seldom does it come from simple brainstorming or problem solving discussions. Such dialogue skills can be learned and the planning team should consider receiving this type of training and coaching as a group. Another tactic to enhance both team learning and the planning process is to rotate all or some of the planning management duties among each of the planning team members (especially briefing and training participating managers). This is one of the best ways to appreciate the systems qualities of a good strategic plan, or lack thereof. On a much higher level, and to improve strategic thinking, get planning team members to think “out of the box”, by getting out of the box (office or plant). In the past ten years process benchmarking has proven to be extremely valuable in generating new ideas and strategies for many companies. Taking it one step further, to benchmarking strategy, can rapidly accelerate organizational learning .

Shared Vision – This is about the collective creation of the future and may be the most powerful of the five disciplines. As Senge stated – “when there is genuine vision … people excel and learn … not because they are told to, but because they want to.” Shared vision of course is fundamental to strategic planning. It answers these three critical questions – What (vision) is the future we wish to create – Why (purpose/mission) do we exist – How (values/beliefs) do we want to act on our way to the future.

Planning and learning are both significantly enhanced by shared vision practices. In addition to the traditional visioning processes for strategic planning, a revitalizing shared vision practice is the recognition and discussion of current realities, and taking that discussion beyond the typical management review of planning data. That is, each planning team member should assess and present their individual contribution to each strength and weakness of the organization. Only by assessing each individuals contribution (or lack thereof) can current realities be accurately defined, and responded to. This can be particularly difficult if the planning team is not accustomed to speaking openly and candidly with each other. However, it is always a real learning experience.

Although specific examples of how to practice each of the disciplines are given here, it should also be noted that the five disciplines are really an integrated process. Each discipline adds value to the others, and systems thinking should occur throughout the practice of each. The same holds true for planning and learning – it is an integrated process – a system. By emphasizing learning as much as strategy during planning activities, organizations can revitalize their planning processes – and learn to be even better organizations.

© 2002 Sigma Resource Group, Inc. You are encouraged to share the contents with others with appropriate attribution. Mark Akerley is President of Sigma Resource Group, a strategic growth and executive development firm assisting business owners, entrepreneurs and executive teams achieve their goals, contact Mark.


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