Strategic Planning: Boring Time Suck!

Strategic Planning. If you haven’t had a chance to read Randy’s recent blog post of the same title, you’re going to want to make sure you listen to this podcast. It just might change the way you think about Strategic Planning.

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Podcast Transcript

  • Carmen: Welcome to Evolutionaries podcast. I’m Carmen Voilliqué.
  • Randy: I’m Randy Harrington.
  • Carmen: And today we’re going to talk about strategic planning.
  • Randy: <fanfare>
  • Carmen: Waa, waa.
  • Randy: Yeah, see that’s what happens. You say strategic planning and people are, “Ohhh … “
  • Carmen: I’m bored just thinking about starting this podcast.
  • Randy: The eye roll.
  • Carmen: No, I’m just kidding.
  • Randy: I know. Well, that’s … yeah.
  • Carmen: That’s what happened to you recently.
  • Randy: It did. I’m a plane and we were talking … I was talking with this guy. I usually don’t talk to anybody on a plane, but the guy started up a conversation, said, “Oh, where are you coming from?” and I said, “Oh, you know, coming from Chicago.” “What did you do?” “Oh, I did a strategic planning session,” and he’s like, “Strategic planning?” and he gets this really kind of animated, goofy look on his face and then he goes, “Boring,” and then he goes, “Time suck,” and then he said … the last thing he said was, “You know, the plan is crap before it even hits the page.”
  •  I thought, “Wow. Man.”
  • Carmen: This could be a long flight.
  • Randy: “This is … you just really kind of laid it right out there for me, though,” and the guy was kind of a tool and he was that was the whole flight; but, you know, my point was, in my heart, I went, “You have no idea, Dude. You have no idea. Because I’m seeing that the really jamming organizations, the ones that are really making a difference, are embracing strategic planning, and they’re looking at it in entirely new ways.”
  • Carmen: Now you just wrote a blog, actually, because this really got you fired up.
  • Randy: It did.
  • Carmen: And I love when people say things like that to you that get you fired up, because you write the best darn blogs.
  • Randy: When I get a little big pissed off.
  • Carmen: So you can go check that out at areyouevolutionary.com. He’s got a blog, basically: Strategic planning, boring time suck.
  • Randy: Boring time suck.
  • Carmen: And I love your opening to it because you say, “It’s not rocket science; it’s much harder than that.”
  • Randy: That’s right.
  • Carmen: And proceed to share ten steps …
  • Randy: Yes.
  • Carmen: … to understand …
  • Randy: To building …
  • Carmen: … to really … you’ve got to understand these phases … ten phases, I guess, is probably what I should have said …
  • Randy: Yeah.
  • Carmen: … that you’re going to go through if you’re going to go through if you’re going to do this right.
  • Randy: Yeah, and what is this? [00:02:00] Let’s start with that.
  • Carmen: Okay.
  • Randy: You know, so what this is is a process, a dialog, a conversation with the whole organization, maybe even with your partners, maybe even with your customers, that constitutes a way to create priorities and focus for the entire organization on an ongoing basis. So we’re not talking about an event, we’re not talking about something that’s just written in a binder and put on a shelf, we’re talking about a very complex communication process that the net result is clarity and focus in your short-, middle-, and long-term plans.
  • Carmen: And everybody in the organization is able to make better, more confident decisions.
  • Randy: Absolutely, and when you take a look at an organization that’s really rocking, that is what happens; and we have seen it happen.
  •  We’ve seen it happen, and when it does it’s just a magical thing. Organizations literally do the impossible.
  • Carmen: Yeah.
  • Randy: Yeah.
  • Carmen: But before you get to the magic part, you’re going to go through a special little strategic planning underworld.
  • Randy: Yeah, absolutely.
  • Carmen: Those are the first phases. You talk about phase I as being … you’re already doomed if you think that this is going to solve all your short-term problems, so the first thing you have to do in phase I is accept that this is a big old long process.
  • Randy: Well, that’s right, and I think people go into this … you know, they’re bringing all of their issues to the table, they want the strategic plan to resolve those problems, and I can tell you it’s just not going to happen. It’s not going to happen now, it’s not going to happen next week, it’s not going to happen next month, it may not even happen next year; and so then a lot of people go, “Well, God, that’s … “
  • Carmen: Well, then why are we even doing it?
  • Randy: ” … why are we even doing this? This really sucks.” Because you really have no choice. You’re either going to get control of your future or it’s going to control you, but I think the big first mistake people make is that they have a ridiculous sense of impatience when it comes to beginning a strategic planning process. This is really hard.
  • Carmen: All right. So I’ve accepted that this is going to take a long time.
  • Randy: Yep.
  • Carmen: And that’s not the end of the bad news because …
  • Randy: Nope.
  • Carmen: … it turns out [00:04:00] phase 2 is I’m going to meet a whole bunch of nay-sayers that I don’t even expect.
  • Randy: That’s right. You know, you thought you knew all of the curmudgeons and …
  • Carmen: I know. I had a list, actually.
  • Randy: … idiots in your organization. Yeah. You thought it was those six people other there, four people over here. Well, when you really start trying to move a strategic dialog in earnest across the organization, people will push back, and they push back in aggressive ways, and all of a sudden you’re going to be hearing, you know, strong negativity from people you never expected.
  •  You know, you’ll be … like the wonderful person who greets you every morning, “Hi. How are you? Great to see you.” Then when you start doing this process and you actually ask her for feedback, she’s going to tell you, “You know, this doesn’t matter, and I don’t know why you’re wasting our time with this, and this is just a big problem, and … ” You know. It’s like, “Gollee, really?”
  • Carmen: Hmm.
  • Randy: You will get negative reinforcement when you try to create alignment in an organization.
  • Carmen: So from even people that are usually pretty positive?
  • Randy: Exactly. They’re positive because they’ve just give up.
  • Carmen: Mmm.
  • Randy: And this is … they’re just going to put a happy face on their day and go home; but if you actually start trying to do something … boy, you’re going to get big resistance, big pushback.
  • Carmen: All right, well that kind of takes us to phases 3 and 4 … I’m going to lump these together … but you say this process piece is not going to give us any clarity, and the people who aren’t complaining are going to not talk to you at all.
  • Randy: That’s right. As you start getting some feedback, you’re going to find out just how screwed up your organization really is, so you’re going to go, “Hey, I’m going to do a … you know, executives do this all the time … I’m going to go do a listening tour,” you know, “I’m going to go …
  • Carmen: Yeah, they go to every department, every location.
  • Randy: … I’m going to go to every department, I’m going to go talk to everybody, and then they come back and they just want to drink gin and lay on the floor because they found out … the little bit that they did find out was: every single screw-up that’s out there … because people go, “You know what? I know this process isn’t going to work, so what I’m going to do is I’m going to take my one opportunity to just spew venom and bile as much as I can and fight for my particular point of view because [00:06:00] I know this is my one chance to get on the table,” so the executive that’s out doing all this listening just comes back with 60 completely distinct, often combative, frustrating points of view to deal with.
  •  And then the rest of the organization … when he goes to them and goes, “Hey, I just heard this from accounting. What do you think?” They’re just going to look at you like, “Huh? What?” They’re not going to say anything. They’re going to go, “Hey, man, that’s not my fight. I’m not going to get involved in that.” So the people that could make a difference are just going to stand back with their arm folded and stare at you.
  • Carmen: Wow. You know, I just did a tour like this that you’re talking about.
  • Randy: Mhm.
  • Carmen: Actually, I’ve done a couple of them in the last few months, and the other thing I heard happens is, when the executives come in … see, for me doing it as a consultant is one thing, and it has its own set of issues …
  • Randy: Right. Right.
  • Carmen: … but what they said is, when an executive come in, the whole place transforms.
  • Randy: Oh, yeah.
  • Carmen: Everybody’s happy.
  • Randy: Oh, yeah. “Hi, how are you?”
  • Carmen: Look at the happiness.
  • Randy: Yeah <whistling> They’re all whistling a jaunty tune. Yeah.
  • Carmen: Yeah, and it’s just good times.
  • Randy: Yeah, but it’s …
  • Carmen: And so I hear from CEOs all the time that, when they go out and they do the tour, they see like none of the problems that everybody’s telling them about …
  • Randy: Yeah, “I don’t know what everybody’s talking about.”
  • Carmen: … they’re not even out there. It’s not true.
  • Randy: Yeah. This is exactly what I’m saying, you know, you just get negative … I mean, you either get noninformation or actually wrong information.
  • Carmen: All right, so we got all that going for us in …
  • Randy: But you have to … and this is where you have that gut check and you go, “I should just quit this job. This just sucks. I shouldn’t be doing this.” But if you really … you just have to keep on doing the right thing. Every single week, every single month, you’ve got to give people an opportunity to get into the conversation, and it has to be genuine; and you just keeping doing it, keep doing it, keep doing it. What does that look like? Surveys …
  • Carmen: So that’s phase 5 and phase 6 and that you talk about as you’re saying that it’s okay except that nobody knows the exact answer. This is the strategy or this is the plan right now …
  • Randy: Right. They don’t … yeah.
  • Carmen: … and then look at as this long-term, down-the-calendar, bite-by-bite …
  • Randy: Keep going. You know, it’s that wonderful thing, “There are inches around us everywhere,” whatever that was from, that movie …
  • Carmen: Oh, it’s A Game of Inches.
  • Randy: [00:08:00] It’s A Game of Inches. Yeah. It’s … Al Pacino.
  • Carmen: Al Pacino. Yeah.
  • Randy: That’s what this is. This is that moment where you just have to fight for those little inches everywhere you can because eventually it will begin to change.
  • Carmen: Finally, phase 7.
  • Randy: Phase 7 what happens.
  • Carmen: You only  have to get to phase 7, folks.
  • Randy: And when phase 7 happens, it will happen like this: somebody who you never counted on, you never thought about, is going to come to you and say, “Hey, I had a really cool idea because of that meeting that we had around the strategic plan, and what if we were to do this, this and this,” or, “I think this and this and this could happen, and I think I could make that happen.” You’re going to all of a sudden see people stand up that you never expected, and they’re going to be the ones that come to you kind of … and almost whisper to you, “Hey, I think this is cool, and I think here’s what we could do,” and, oh, that’s a point of magic.
  •  In the article I say it’s like that moment what you’re trying to make a fire in the forest at your campsite, and you just get those little sparks. Those little sparks are starting, and you you’re, you know, you’re blowing on the little <blowing sounds> and you’ve got your little pine needles in there, and it’s just starting to smoke, and you’re like, “Aah,” and you see that first little flame pop up … that’s what’s going on here. You’ve just made fire, and it’s an exciting moment.
  • Carmen: Nice. And so now everybody’s excited, you’re excited. In phase 8 you say, “Take it easy, Buckaroo.”
  • Randy: That’s right because … and I have … this is a mistake I’ve made 174 times. I go, “Oh, my gosh,” you know, and the organization’s, “Oh, my gosh,” and pretty soon people are high-fiving, oh, and then they’re all saying, “Wow, this is such a great process that we’re in. Oh, aren’t we fabulous. We’re more fabulous than anybody else,” and then they get crazy because they believe they can do anything.
  •  And so … then it’s like, “Let’s have 19 … “
  • Carmen: Just drunk with power.
  • Randy: ” … major strategic initiatives. Let’s do these 700 things, and let’s change the world,” and it’s just like, “Whoa.” The metaphor I would use there is just like you just took a big wet pine log and put in on your little tiny flame. You know <raspberries>, it’s gone. You just killed your fire because, all of a sudden, a month after that, [00:10:00] people are going to go, “Well, we tried that huge project and we got killed.” So this whole strategic planning thing is all bullshit and we shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.
  • Carmen: Or another thing I’ve seen is, you know, you get … everybody’s fired up, you’ve got everybody finally performing, kind of moving in alignment, it’s really exciting. It turns out you can run eight cross-functional projects at a time, and because you can do that you think, “Well, let’s run nine. Well, let’s run ten. Look at our people; they just keep stepping up. They keep stepping up,” and then you get, you know, a year down the road and you’re people are ready to actually kill you.
  • Randy: Yeah. They’re burned out, they’re bitter, and it’s … and then what happens is they end up pointing an accusing finger at the process. “This all started with that strategic planning thing, by God. We should have never done this. This is the worst thing ever. We should never strategic plan again. We don’t use the strategic word here anymore.”
  • Carmen: So you say that’s when phase 9 is really important, which is you’ve got to reinforce your formal and informal communication networks, praise, bonuses, coaching, development.
  • Randy: Yeah. This is when, you know, you … again, using that fire metaphor … you have to just incrementally, incrementally build that fire one little step at a time, just a little bit, a little bit, a little bit, and you’re constantly bringing positive reinforcement into the process. You’re trying to figure out ways to make the communication easier. You’re going to see the overall communication levels going up significantly in the organization, and that means more stress in the organization. So balance.
  • Carmen: Folks who know us know I have a background in education. I listen to that, you know, in the education world we call it scaffolding. You’ve got to have the scaffolding.
  • Randy: Ah, yes, exactly. Brilliant. Build it … you know, you can’t just go straight to the top. That’s right. If it was a climbing metaphor, we’d be talking about putting pitons in the wall …
  • Carmen: Yes. Yes.
  • Randy: … so that you can hang your weight off of that because you will fall.
  • Carmen: Right.
  • Randy: Right. So we have to figure that out, and it’s …
  • Carmen: All right, and then …
  • Randy: … it’s a technical stage, but it’s when … frankly, this is a point where …
  • Carmen: And not that many people do it well, either.
  • Randy: No, that’s what I’m saying. This is where a little consultancy help could really go a long way for an organization.
  • Carmen: Mhm. Mhm.
  • Randy: Because there are very specific techniques you can employ that will make this [00:12:00] stage work.
  • Carmen: And we have seen it work.
  • Randy: We have, brilliantly.
  • Carmen: Very well. All right, rounding the corner. This is the home stretch, to phase 10, and that is: be ready to start all over again.
  • Randy: Phase 10, be ready to start all over. You know, you think … okay, so you’ve been doing this for almost a year. You’re feeling really good. You’ve got programs going. You’ve got a nice plan, and you’re like, “Oh, we’re just sailing now. We’re in just cruise mode,” …
  • Carmen: Mhm.
  • Randy: … and it’s not true. The big magic moment to look out for is when you’re fiscal year ends. As soon as your fiscal year ends and your new fiscal year begins, it’s like people’s minds get wiped. It’s like they were really smart on June 29th, and on June 30th they got stupid again because it’s …
  • Carmen: And they all go on vacation.
  • Randy: And they go on vacation. It’s the beginning of the fiscal year, the new budget is here, and so it’s like … it’s like they’re goldfish, like they’re reset their whole sensibility, and you know what? That means you actually have to start all over, and that means starting back with phase 1 and saying, “Oh, yeah. Hey, remember this is why we’re having these conversations,” and all of a sudden all of that fortified strength that you had is gone. You have to reassemble it every single year.
  •  Now saying that, I will say that after an organization’s culture embraces that overall strategic conversation, then that changes. Then you end up with this beautiful ongoing communication process where, over time, you’ll actually see the volume of communication going down significantly in the organization.
  •  I liken that to like an emergency rescue team where they’ve done so many rescues together that they don’t even talk anymore. They’re just like, boom, boom, boom, boom. They’re just getting it done because they’re a well-oiled machine. Well, that takes a huge amount of time and practice.
  • Carmen: It does, but it’s a really powerful thing, and I’ll say, though, even then, don’t rest on your laurels, because we were at a company just recently, bit all-staff meeting they had, that they have annually, and they asked: how many people have been hired within the last year to stand, and it was an unbelievable number [00:14:00] of folks.
  • Randy: Yeah, 25% of the people that work …
  • Carmen: And you realize … and it’s because they’re growing so fast, it’s not because they have huge turnover … but oh, my gosh, so here you’ve got this whole new group of people who really weren’t there for the history, they weren’t there for the beginning, and so you do have to keep rebuilding that in and starting from the beginning.
  • Randy: And there’s a lot of just general skepticism about these processes because, so often, maybe there’s a leadership change in the organization and the new sets of leaders don’t honor the conversation commitments that were made in a process, and when that kind of betrayal occurs, oh boy, can that be just completely damaging to an organization where people just go, “See? I told you this is what would happen,” you know, so when you finally get this magical strategic conversation in place, you can change the world, you can do the impossible, and we have plenty of examples. Maybe on another podcast we’ll actually talk about specific examples.
  •  It’s magic, but like magic it’s fragile. And so, to those executives who are actually out there championing this inclusive strategic planning process, God love you because it is a thankless job that you have to repeat again and again, but I will tell you it’s the only way, in my opinion, you’re going to build a truly 21st-century-ready organization. You’ve got to do this.
  • Carmen: Absolutely. It’s the new strategic planning.
  • Randy: it is. It is. No more just go to the retreat and put paper on the wall.
  • Carmen: And it’s such hard work it’s never boring.
  • Randy: It’s never boring, and you’re never done. Um, so I hope that was helpful for you.
  • Carmen: Yes, and please go check out the blog if you’d like to learn more, or …
  • Randy: areyouevolutionary.com.
  • Carmen: … find those ten steps.
  • Randy: Yeah, you can check out the ten steps and anything else, by all means, give us a buzz at areyouevolutionary website, and we will look for you next time on our fabulous podcast, [00:16:00] the Evolutionary podcast. Be great. Be brilliant. Change the world.
  •  Talk to you soon.