Friday, August 19, 2016

The Fall of Strategic Planning

I was recently reading a posting on the Strategic Planning Society group’s site on Linkedin. It was titled “Forget strategy, innovation has replaced it!” The point Bernhard Schmidt was making was that strategy has lost its relevance in business and has been replaced by innovation.

This is a good issue to bring up. However, I think that point of view just touches the surface of the problem. I wanted to reply with a longer, more nuanced answer to why strategic planning has gone out of favor, but my response was too long to fit into the comments section. Therefore, I am putting my response here.

This is what I tried to put into the comments section:

Here’s my brief take on the decline of Strategic Planning:

1) When strategic planning was at its peak, companies saw many options for their firms and they wanted to learn which option was the best for the company’s long term future in terms of profits, market share and stability. As a result, strategic planning tended to focus on marketing (i.e., positioning) and business models. This was highly valued, so strategic planning was held in high esteem.

2) Then the CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) position was created. This robbed the strategist of one of their most powerful tools—strategic positioning—because that function was given to the CMO. Unfortunately, most CMOs were so preoccupied with near-term advertising that positioning rarely got the attention it deserved from CMOs. As a result, the idea of strategic positioning faded away.

3) Without the marketing foundation, strategic planning became principally a financial function—a bunch of scorekeepers (did you make your numbers). Since there was little foundation behind the numbers (why the numbers should be hit), the scorekeepers turned into complainers (you didn’t hit your number). Who needs that?

4) Worst of all, the objectives of business changed. First, modern companies don’t care so much about traditional measures of success. Business model profitability and customer satisfaction became optional or of far less importance. After all, nearly all of a modern company’s value comes at two points in time—when it gets initial investment money and when it cashes in (goes public or sells out). This limits strategy to how to:

a)     Make the best investment pitches to VCs; and
b)     How to cash out.

So strategy looks more like an episode of Flip This House. You don’t need fancy strategic planners for that.

5) This leads to the second change in objectives. Almost nobody seems to care about the long term as much as in earlier days. Why worry about the long term when you are going to flip the company near term? And since few people stay at a company over 2 years, the employees have no vested interest in long-term health. The founders get their wealth up front when the firm cashes out, so the outer years are less meaningful to them. Few shareholders care about long term either. Without a concern for the long-term, there is little regard for long-term strategy experts.

6) So it gets down to innovation. I interviewed for a strategy position at one firm that planned to go public soon. They said that they would get a higher IPO price if they could show innovative new ideas in the pipeline, so they were looking for someone to help fill the pipeline with a little innovation. This would make great copy to put into the S-1 document filed with the SEC when going public. Hence, innovation was more about boosting the near-term cash out value than the long-term viability of the firm. So in this case, strategy was reduced to little more than a public relations function.

So the issue is a lot bigger than just strategy losing out to innovation. Strategic Planners have been robbed of some of their most powerful tools (like strategic marketing) and companies no longer seem to want to buy what strategic planners used to sell (long term profitability and stability).

So what can marketers do? There are two approaches.

First, strategists can reassert themselves by re-introducing companies to the value that traditional strategic planning can provide. This starts with getting management to see the value in what strategic planning offers. The most compelling argument is that current valuations are based on future expectations. So if you want a high value today, you need a plan which shows a better future tomorrow.

The next step is to grab back your power base. Seize back the strategic positioning role. Downplay the scorekeeper role. Get involved in business model discussions. Put companies on the right path. Place yourself in the middle of company decisions where there are long-term implications. Be the “strategy whisperer” who never lets the CEO forget about the strategic implications embedded in day-to-day decisions.

The second approach would be to adapt strategic planning to be vital to the new reality. This would include things like:

a)     Make scorekeeping a more valuable function by doing a better job of linking numbers to strategic initiatives and helping teams make their numbers.
b)     Do a better job of helping companies get VC funding and to cash in.
c)     Become a public relations expert. Show you can master the strategic language that gets more money from VCs and when cashing in.
d)     Show that you can be fast and provide insights today rather than waiting for a year-long planning cycle to occur.
e)     Show that there can be a more strategic approach to innovation than just “trying a bunch of stuff hoping something will work.” I looked at this in more detail in my prior blog.

Finally, show everyone how including a consideration of long-term implications when making short-term decisions leads to better short-term decisions. This gets at the heart of the issue facing most leaders.

It is true that traditional strategic planning has gone out of favor and that innovation is the “flavor of the day.” To regain relevancy, strategic planners need to either:

a)     Re-educate management as to the value traditional planning can bring; or
b)     Adapt strategic planning to be a more vital element in the new management priorities.

The proper approach depends on your current situation, although a blend of both is probably required.

There is no value in being “the strategy person” if nobody is looking for a strategy person. So job #1 is to come up with a strategy to make being the strategy person a valuable title to have.

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