Planners don't plan anymore
Robert M. Tomasko
Is strategic planning dead? The famous quip made by author Mark Twain - that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated - also applies to the state of strategic planning. Although business planners, and the elaborate corporate staff bureaucracies they worked in, have been favorite targets of downsizers, today the job is more likely to be reformed than eliminated.
Strategic planners are spending less time actually producing plans and more time preparing operating managers throughout the organization to do the actual planning. Role distinctions between staff planners and executive development specialists are blurring. And the business' chief planning officer is increasingly the chief executive.
As part of an assignment for a large multinational, I identified a sequence of eight activities that many world class planners have made their top priorities:
- Planners are teaching the future. Using techniques like simulation games, scenarios and alternative futures, they are actively educating their corporate constituencies about the promises and threats behind the trends effecting the business.
- Planners are creating a understanding of what the state of current reality is with respect to these future challenges - and ensuring this view is widely shared throughout the organization.
- Planners are advising managers as the managers set concrete goals regarding the state of the business at a specific point in the future. Planners help ensure these goals relate not just to the business' existing operations, but also to the goals of other parts of the corporation as well as new endeavors beyond the current scope of the business.
- Planners create cross-organization forums where step-by-step approaches are identified to close the gaps between the current state of the business and its goals for the future.
- Planners periodically keep score on the progress of the organization in closing these gaps - a form of progress not always well measured by the company's existing information and financial control systems.
- When progress on achieving future goals is uneven, planners advise management on potential mid-course corrections.
- Planners are sufficiently detached from the achievement of these goals (the responsibility of management), so that they can be in a position to interpret ongoing performance shortfalls as a sign the goals themselves need to be rethought.
- Planners can signal the final achievement of future objectives, organize appropriate forums for recognition and celebration, and plant the seeds for the organization's next growth initiative.
These changes in the planner's role necessitates changes in the planner's background and training. Less emphasis is required on analytical skills, while more experience with behavioral technologies is demanded. While the traditional corporate planner might have once played the part of an all-knowing oracle, the contemporary job requires more the mind set of a theater director or talent impresario.
The planners' career path will blur the traditional distinction between line and staff. Many planners will come to these jobs with operational backgrounds - in sales, production, logistics and technology. They will not remain in planning positions for most of their careers. The ideas they help generate in their planning work may well be ones they will be asked to bring into reality in their next assignment as an operating manager.
One company I studied only lets planners plan for businesses that don't exist. Then, when there's consensus on strategy, the same planners are told to go out and create the new business. They're held accountable for achieving the targets in their plan, also.
© Robert M. Tomasko 2002