December 22, 2002

The Process is the Plan

In preparing to facilitate several strategic planning discussions in the new year, I have been amazed again at organizations’ lack of interest in designing the process itself. When I talk with individual leaders about pre-work, phone interviews, discussion formats, etc. their eyes seem to glaze over as if to say, “I can’t really be bothered with that. Just help us produce a plan.”

It is not as if a “right process” actually exists for any particular organization. Useful strategy often emerges in spite of the process in many organizations. But the process itself still begs for more attention than it is typically given.

It’s as if “produce a strategic plan” is just another item on our to do list, and we can’t wait to check off its completion. That type of attitude is what leads to the periodic conference call in which an organization's leaders ask me if we can revise their mission, vision, core values, and major goal areas in a 6-8 hour session. Sure, and after that we'll still have time to generate a few breakthrough product innovations that should produce unparalled revenues for your business.

This happens all too often because of the mistaken priority we allocate to the plan itself. In a roundabout way, this lesson can be gleaned from a December 22nd article by The New York Times architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp. In it, he discusses the recently released concepts for ground zero and the space allocated to a memorial.

“The whole thing is the memorial: the designs; the debates they provoke; the self-awareness that emerges in the course of the debate; and the shifting shape of the city in the light of that awareness (December 22, Arts and Leisure, p. 42).

Similarly, the entire strategic planning process and all the conversations about what it should contain, the discussions actually occurring during any strategy-making sessions, and whatever happens after such sessions occur are the plan. The very nature of those conversations changes people, and as a result, those people will in some way change the organization. Sure, we need to produce some sort of strategic agenda that reflects the priorities and insights that emerge from those conversations. Used appropriately, that agenda will undoubtedly be of value in guiding future decisions.

But the real gift to be received is everything that occurs in an effort to produce such an agenda or plan. Organizations need to attend far more to the process itself—designing it with great care and attention, as well as learning from it as it unfolds.

As one of my first mentors shared with me more than a decade ago, “The minute you produce the plan, it is time to start the process all over again. That’s where the really good stuff happens.”

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