What Makes Strategic Planning, Strategic?
Image by Manuel Boissière for CIFOR via Flickr

by | Jun 12, 2017 | FPN Blog

The Asia-Pacific region faces some of the world’s most severe sustainability issues, where population explosion, resource extraction and environmental degradation are only some of the biggest challenges.

In response, international organizations are increasingly turning their attention to forests. In 2013, the European Union (EU) updated its Forest Strategy to address the “increasing demands put on forests and significant societal and political changes that have affected forests over the last 15 years.” Last year, the World Bank released its Forest Action Plan for 2016 to 2020, to step up forest action by boosting investments in sustainable forest management and “forest-smart” interventions. In the same year, the Strategic Plan of Action for ASEAN Cooperation on Forestry was released with an end-date in 2025.

With all these plans in place, will organizations achieve their objectives and save the region’s forests?

The truth is, we simply cannot tell by looking at the documents. To assess whether a plan is strategic, we must look beyond what is written. We must look at the organization’s structure, culture and the process behind how the plan was developed and how it is being implemented. In other words, we must look at the bigger picture and dig deeper.

But what makes strategic planning strategic, you may ask? In fact, the way management experts view strategic planning has evolved over the last few decades.

Strategic planning can generally be described as an organization’s process of forming a set of goals, and then defining the actions and resources to pursue those goals. When the concept first surfaced, it gained rapid popularity as the solution for organizations to deal with the increasingly faster moving world and all the changes that come along with it.

Image by Gabriel Saldana via Flickr

In his paper: The Learning Organization and Strategic Change, Management Expert Dr. Robert Rowden categorized strategic planning into four types. Each type involves a cycle of taking action, confronting problems and adjusting course, and each type intends to be an improvement on the previous one.

In the beginning, strategic planning focused on formal planning. Top-level managers met in a room once a year to envisage scenarios, prescribe actions and formulate desired results. The product of this process was a formal planning document that set the stage for what the organization would do for the rest of the year. This was called the “predict and plan” method.

But organizations soon realized that in reality, the implementation phase often called for more time and resources than what was expected. The plans also excluded valuable field knowledge, experience and ideas that mid-level management could have brought to the table. As a result, plans frequently “stayed on the shelf”.

So, organizations began focusing more on the implementation side of strategic planning. Middle managers became involved. More focus was placed on the financial, technical, human and time resources needed to execute the plans. Monitoring was emphasized to tackle problems along the way.

But organizations still encountered similar issues in unexpected delays, slow progress and resistance in the organization. Why?

The reason was a general lack of long-term thinking at multiple levels of management, which involved short-sightedness at the top level, reluctance to radical changes at the middle level, and lack of big-picture thinking at the operational level.

It became clear that successful implementation is a complex beast in itself, connected to broader issues such as the organization’s culture, norms and policies.

Learning from this, strategic planners turned their attention to readiness. They focused on raising awareness and communicating the organization’s vision internally. They looked at how current structures can be adjusted to ease change, and how the organization’s culture, norms, policies and incentives can be aligned towards new goals. For readiness-focused planners, the process became participatory and facilitative.

Unfortunately, gaps remained. Certain traditional attitudes, such as developing fixed programs and expecting rapid and narrow results, still led to failures.

Cue the learning organization. The learning organization is among the most recent methods of strategic planning that has emerged in management science. It emphasizes constant readiness, continuous planning, improvised implementation and ongoing adaptation.

Strategic planning has evolved over four types: formal planning, implementation-focused, readiness-focused and the learning organization.

The learning organization combines and builds upon the first three methods of strategic planning, but also integrates a new element of continuous learning. When disruptions arise, learning organizations take action, reflect and adjust course.

When organizations become learning-focused, they develop a culture that not only accepts but expects change, and leaves room for flexible planning and improvisation in the process. They seek opportunities to learn and prepare, rather than wait for problems to arise.

Is the learning organization the end-all of strategic planning? Not likely. As organizations face new changes, challenges and opportunities, new methods to improve on previous planning methods will emerge, and the strategic planning concept will continue to evolve.

Even so, strategic planning has transformed into a process beyond the document, and we must stop believing that planning is over once the document is prepared. Instead, we should see strategic planning as a continuous process that shapes the organization’s culture, engages individuals in action and opens itself to learning and adjustment.

The success of the EU, World Bank and ASEAN does not rest only on the quality of their strategy documents, but whether the organizations and their members are prepared, facilitative and responsive enough to the changes and challenges they face during implementation.

An organization’s strategic planning style likely falls into one or a combination of the four versions. Becoming aware of the different styles can help identify gaps in current methods and determine how to improve.

Which of the four styles of planning – formal, implementation, readiness or learning – does your organization fall under? Is it a combination of the styles, or perhaps a completely different one? Let us know your thoughts by writing to info@apfnet.cn.

About the FPN Blog

The APFNet-led Asia-Pacific Forestry Planning Network (FPN) is an informal knowledge network that aims to strengthen national forestry planning processes in the Asia-Pacific region. The FPN Blog is targeted to network members but policymakers and other forestry practitioners may also find it relevant. For more information, please contact Ms. Alexandra Wu at alexandra_wu@apfnet.cn.

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