Caleb White

Caleb White

Senior Consultant

The following blog is a thinkpiece in response to CFAR’s “Strategic Planning versus Strategy Making” Briefing Note. Our Briefing Notes are short summaries of linked themes that begin with our clients—practices we find that unlock client dilemmas, ideas that generate new thinking and behavior, notions that come to us prompted by reading the popular and professional press that we then apply in the service of helping clients. These write-ups represent a tradition of thinking in practice, hoping they can be little pearls of wisdom garnered from reflecting on our work. With over 240 currently on file, CFAR’s Briefing Notes stand to represent the integrity of academic thought that has gone into our client engagements over our 30 years in business. 

 In 1957, the New Yorker published a Leonard Dove cartoon of a group of Americans, just off their “10-European-cities-in-10-days” tour bus, staring down at their itinerary with the caption, “But if it’s Tuesday, it has to be Siena.” Slaves to their tour schedule, it was not the cafés of the Piazza del Campo, the renowned Mangia Tower, or the communities beneath Siena’s sea of red roofs that engaged their minds—instead, it was the itinerary paper that defined what, where, and how they were to experience Europe. Today, travelers continue to fill Facebook with “selfies” from “10-cities-in-10-days tours,” often absent the richness of the subtleties and nuances critical to truly understanding foreign cultures.

In institutional strategic planning, the guidelines of governing bodies (and the processes and project teams often deployed to complete this work) can have a similarly numbing effect to a 10-day journey: the end-product may satisfy requirements, and those involved may have completed a requisite S.W.O.T. analysis, but to what end? Critical in the process is involving the players who are core to creating that institution’s “special sauce.” Without them, the most critical aspects of mission delivery, competitive advantage, and strategic differentiation—central to defining strategic direction—are often missed. Furthermore, without engagement and buy-in of this vital group, the ultimate strategy is likely to be, at best, misunderstood by those instrumental in delivery, resulting in confusion and rework, and, at worst, a complete mission failure.

In a recent strategic planning project, the incoming CEO compellingly captured the essential interconnectedness of the institution’s internal stakeholders—calling constituents its “heart,” staff its “body,” and leadership its “soul.” When creating a strategic plan, the process must avoid too heavy a reliance on pre-existing hierarchies and governing bodies, which, while useful to ensuring a smooth running of daily operations, are likely to be more removed from the constituents and the latest engagement strategies. Instead, involving multiple perspectives in a safe climate of extreme trust will empower participants to express their ideas and interests. For the collective, it will both provide a fuller understanding of the places that the institution has been and, perhaps even more crucially, capture the new frontiers it aspires to reach. The best strategy develops journeys that draw out the current internal debates and tap into the institution’s rich pockets of innovation. In so doing, creativity and deviant thinking, a robust set of hypotheses, strategic options, and institutional choices will emerge, as will a successful and distinctive strategy.

Following a path that ensures conversation and reflection by an institution’s heart, body, and soul will undoubtedly enrich the strategic thinking. Allowing divergent streams of thought, meandering anecdotes, and a debate of itineraries should be embraced as a healthy part of the process. Just as with a bus tour through Europe, strategy development can offer the scenic route or the highway. Think twice before jumping on the road to expediency.