Monday, November 21, 2011

Strategic Planning Analogy #423: The Whole Canvas at Once

Back when I was in college, I spent one year as an art major. I had a professor who tried to teach me how to paint. This professor said that beginning novice painters tend to make the mistake of working on a painting one section at a time.

These new artists try to get one small section of the painting fully completed before moving to another section of the canvass. Then they try to fully complete the painting in the second section before moving to a third section, and so on.

The professor said this was a mistake because all of these little sections rarely fit together properly when the painting is completed. The colors don’t blend together right, the textures don’t blend together, and the overall effect feels disjointed rather than as one flowing statement.

Instead, the professor said that one should paint over the entire canvass all at the same time. First, you rough out the entire painting at the same time. Then you put on the finishing touches across the entire canvas at the same time. That way, everything flows together well and the painting makes a grand, unified statement.

Although this advice was excellent, my painting skills were not. It was soon thereafter that I switched my college major to something besides art.

Painting and Strategic Planning are both creative processes. And, in my opinion, a great strategic plan (when completed) can be just as beautiful as a great painting. But both can appear rather ugly if one does not follow the advice of my art professor.

The strategic process is often broken down into its component parts, like mission statements, five forces analyses, vision statements, scenario planning, goal-setting, tactics, etc. Then, like those misguided painting novices, we can try to perfect each of these parts in isolation before moving onto the next component. It can be like following a check list. You do a strategic task to completion, check it off the list as “done”, and then move onto the next item on the list.

The problem comes when all the items on the list are finally checked off as done. Because each step was done in isolation and fully completed before moving onto the next step, the end result looks ugly. The parts don’t blend together. Everything is disjointed. There is no overall flow to the plan.

Because the pieces are not well integrated, faulty logic can creep into the strategic process, or even no logic at all to tie the parts together. The net result is a failed plan, because not only is the logic weak, but nobody could understand the flow and become committed to making the flow a reality.

Just like in painting, a truly beautiful strategic plan occurs only when you work the entire canvass simultaneously. That way, you can make sure that the logic flows properly and that people can clearly see the vision you have tried to communicate.

The principle here is that strategic planning is not a series of isolated events, but an iterative process. You cannot effectively finish one part until you have finished all parts.

Each Part Influences Other Parts
All of the various parts of a strategic plan influence all the other parts of the plan. Therefore, one needs to work through all the parts together in order to take advantage of all the richness to be found in the interaction between the parts. The whole canvass needs to be worked as a whole—in an ongoing basis—allowing the knowledge gotten from feedback in one area to influence all the other areas.

For example, one can do a SWOT analysis (Strengths Weaknesses Opportunities Threats) and come away thinking you really know where your strengths are relative to competition. However, a later scenario exercise (or market test) may cause you to realize that if the environment unfolds in a particular manner, your “strengths” may not be as strong as you originally thought. You may need to go back and modify your earlier SWOT conclusions. And if your original mission was based on a strength you now feel is less secure, you may need to change the mission statement. Either that, or you may need a radical reprioritization of strategic initiatives in order to spend time restoring a strength you realize you no longer have.

Or let’s say you set a goal. Then later on in the planning process, you realize that the only way to possibly achieve that goal is by taking on more risk than you feel comfortable with. Based on this new information, you may need to go back and either change your goal or change your tolerance for risk. The worst thing you can do is not go back and change the goal (because that task is already “done”) and then disappoint everyone when the goal is not achieved, because the goal was never realistic in the first place.

Sometimes, you cannot tell if a vision is a good one until you work through all of its implications in the rest of the planning exercises. You may find out that it isn’t as good as you thought, or perhaps you stumble upon an even better vision. So you should be open to change as you go through the process.

Don’t Be Premature In Wordsmithing
I’ve seen planning processes grind to halt as executives struggle over each individual word in a mission statement or vision statement. Many weeks or months can go by as the simple sentence is edited, then re-edited, then re-re-edited, then re-re-re-edited, and so on. Major discussions envelop the choice of each word.

This is like the painter who labors forever over the perfection of the painting of a single tree in a forest landscape before moving on. So many layers of paint and scrapings of paint may occur on that single tree that it no longer looks like it fits into the rest of the forest. Similarly, so much effort is put into the individual words or a mission or vision statement that the big picture of the whole plan is missed.

Earlier, we saw that as we learn from the planning process, we may need to go back and modify prior efforts. A good idea for a vision or mission statement may not look so good anymore. It may need to be altered. Unfortunately, if you have just gone through this major, time-consuming struggle to perfect each word of the statement, it may not be possible to alter it any more. It’s taken on a life of its own and it would be a political nightmare to open it up for review.

Now, you are stuck with:

a) A statement no longer appropriate for the strategy; or

b) A strategy that matches the statement, but not the reality of the marketplace; or

c) A statement which eventually gets ignored because people know it is not relevant to what is happening (meaning that all that work was a waste of time); or

d) A strategy which eventually gets ignored because people cling too tightly to the improper vision/mission statement; or

e) A poor planning process, because the earlier-written statement blinds the executives from keeping an open mind about the realities in subsequent analyses.

None of these are good options. That’s why vision and mission statements should not be fully locked down into the final words until the full planning process has had a chance to “pressure-test” the statement, to make sure it is still completely relevant. Postpone the “wordsmithing” until you are sure you have a full understanding of the big picture. Don’t do it as a complete, unalterable, isolated event at the very beginning of the process.

Because all the parts of the strategic planning process influence your knowledge base for all the other parts of the process, you cannot do effective strategic planning in a strictly linear manner. Instead of perfecting each part individually and sequentially (like a check list), one needs to incorporate a little back and forth into the process. New learnings need to be applied to prior strategy tasks to ensure that they are still relevant. Be willing to adjust and modify along the way. Work the entire strategy canvas together.

Just because the strategy process should be iterative does not mean that a plan is never completed. Painters work the entire canvas together in an iterative fashion, yet manage to eventually complete the painting. Everything on the painting gradually gets better together until everything looks great. The same is true of strategic planning. Yes, go back and forth to keep making everything better, but eventually stop when the whole picture comes together. Then start the implementation.


  1. Mini Cooper Turbo
    I wanted to thank you for this great post!! I enjoyed every little bit of it, I have you bookmarked and waiting for all the new stuff you post.

  2. Gerald Nanninga,
    I agree with you 100%, If a plan is to succeed it has to be a living document as the human body is. Seeing the big picture is more important than seeing the parts each on its own and ignoring that these parts are interacting.
    The waterfall model of planning is failing and the iterative approach is replacing it. And yet we continue to revert to type and fall in the comfort zone of waterfall planning. I guess one reason is that the planners do not interact in an iterative process. After all, the plan is an outcome of the work of planners.
    Great post, as usual