How to Introduce a New Strategic Planning Approach into Legacy Organizations

Introduce new behaviors and identify what needs to change to make the most of teams’ strategic planning sessions

With September just around the corner, many leaders are already starting to plan for 2022 and beyond. And while there’s plenty of uncertainty about how markets will change and what organizations must do in response, their immediate concern is the process: how can they make sure their strategic planning sessions are time well spent?

All too often, meetings supposedly focused on strategy for the next three to five years get sidetracked by re-litigating the past or triaging the concerns of the present. Or maybe your team experiences the exact opposite: you emerge with lofty, far-reaching goals, but no immediate next steps or accountability. Legacy organizations in particular are hamstrung by more bureaucratic processes: boards that expect a 5+ year plan to approve at their annual Q3 meeting, org-wide budgeting that only happens once a year, and an overall “set it and forget it” mindset when it comes to strategy.

We designed Adaptive Planning to address these concerns; to provide teams with a roadmap for the future while maintaining flexibility in the face of change. But if you’re considering introducing any new approach to strategic planning, it’s important to evaluate the culture changes needed for adoption, just like you would for other initiatives. Adaptive Planning, for instance, asks teams to collaborate, requires agile learning environments, and demands at least some appetite for risk—a significant departure from traditional (if ineffective) methods of strategic planning that result in 100-slide decks and a set of 10-year milestones and goals.

For some organizations, this may be too dramatic a shift for one year. The good news is that you can still start to apply aspects of Adaptive Planning, and shake up old ways of thinking and doing. Rather than diving in with both feet, consider biting off smaller pieces as you get started:

  • Start at the team level. Maybe your multi-year strategy is already set for the organization. If so, great—you’re off to a good start! But are departments prepared to implement it? Align teams around one-year intentions, and create a quarter-by-quarter plan for how they’ll get there. Just keep in mind that in order for this process to be truly adaptive, you need to leave time and space for learning and reflection at the end of each quarter, and to iterate your ongoing approach accordingly.
  • Add on. Supplement, rather than completely substitute, the long-term planning required by your board or other stakeholders. Where your existing org strategy may stop at the level of multi-year goals and KPIs, Adaptive Planning can help break down those big-picture ambitions into tangible quarter-by-quarter action plans. Get your organization out of the five-year plan, and into the realities of the near term.
  • Introduce a few practices in your existing ways of working. That way, when you do adopt the new approach, the behaviors will feel less foreign. For instance:
    • Instead of projects, talk about and document the “bets” you’re testing. What do you hope to gain by pursuing a bet? What do you hope to learn? This framing gets your team in the mindset that every initiative is in some way an experiment, and that they can continuously improve their approach as more information emerges.
    • Implement “Learning Roundtables.” Every quarter, invite the team together to discuss data, learnings, failures, and successes. Creating these moments of coming together, reflecting, and iterating is central to the adaptive approach.
    • Create a regular practice around “Sensing.” Often, leaders focus their strategies on the factors within their zone of control or influence. But if the past 17 months have taught us anything, it’s that sometimes we need to be responsive to factors and forces completely outside of our control. (For example, many companies planned to bring their teams back into the office in June, but emerging variants have forced them to reconsider.) Keep a pulse on what’s happening in your environment, and evaluate how changing conditions will impact your strategy.
    • Consider what conditions would be required to adopt a new strategic planning approach. It’s likely you’ll need to work on building buy-in for the approach at the board or shareholder level. If you’ve got a risk-averse culture, prone to perfectionist tendencies, you may need to chip away at those behaviors slowly, and work on building a culture of trust and experimentation. As a leader, that means giving people permission to skateboard new ideas, and occasionally fail.

If you’re still unsure where to begin, consider scheduling a meeting with senior leaders in your organization to conduct a retrospective on your usual planning process. How much did you get right? What could you have better planned? What came as a complete surprise, and derailed your team’s efforts? Agreeing on needed improvements will help build the case for trying out a new approach for the next planning cycle.

Get in touch to learn how NOBL can apply Adaptive Planning to your organization, or sign up for next week’s newsletter, where we’ll share how teams that are new to strategic planning can get started.

Published August 22, 2021

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