Strategic Planning and Thinking: The Best Way To Inform Decision-Making
Both strategic planning and strategic thinking feed decision-making. Strategic planning, typically conducted on an annual basis as an individual or collective exercise, asks, “Where do we want to be in 3 years? In 5 years? What blocks of work need to be done to accomplish this overarching goal?” An individual or business unit could go through the entire planning exercise, though, without ever thinking strategically.
How do we develop a strategic plan without strategic thinking? The process becomes rote and mechanical. In other words, we approach strategy from an operational mindset! We might, for instance, just extend into the future what we’ve done in the past or what we already know.
Twenty years back (1994) Henry Mintzberg, a renowned business management guru, wrote in HBR:
“[S]trategic planning is not strategic thinking. Indeed, strategic planning often spoils strategic thinking, causing managers to confuse real vision with the manipulation of numbers. And this confusion lies at the heart of the issue: the most successful strategies are visions, not plans.” 
Strategic planning is an activity done for a concentrated period of time; strategic thinking is something that is, or should be, in the back of your mind much more frequently. Whether daily, weekly, or monthly, it provides us the opportunity to take operational thinking and move it up a level.
From Operational to Strategic
As Mintzberg emphasizes, visions are often better guides than plans. That is, instead of engaging in a mindset of traditional goal-setting, it’s helpful to set broad targets and concentrate on the types of initiatives we need to put in place to achieve them.
Let’s make this personal and let’s say that I intend to significantly increase my professional services revenue over the next year. I commit to that, and then, rather than driving myself nuts in terms of how to achieve it, I can refocus: What kinds of initiatives would be most useful for me to put into place to accomplish this broad aspiration? What’s the nature of the marketing I need to do to most effectively increase my visibility and that of what I have to offer? As most of my business comes from people with whom I have established contact, what’s my program for maintaining that contact with potential clients and referrals? Now I can put specific initiatives in place around these areas.
Being able to think strategically will help me move towards those targets.
Here’s a simple example of how: I received an email a short time ago regarding a nonprofit organization that needed some assistance with strategic facilitation. It had been addressed to several people, and through the email trail I saw the original sender was someone I’d known for years. I called him and asked, “What do you think? Should I get involved in this?” As we chatted, he told me this particular project had gone quiet but that he had something else he wanted to talk to me about – another opportunity.
If I had been thinking operationally – planning my work and working my plan, as it were – chances are I would have discarded that email right off the bat. It wouldn’t have been part of the plan. Seeing that my old colleague was the sender I would have thought, “Well, he’s retired. I won’t bug him.” But moving up again, to strategic thinking, I revised that to: “No, this is one of the elements I’m concentrating on to build my business. Strategically, it’s important that I at least make the call.”
Operational thinking tends to deal with doing things right. Strategic thinking tends to deal with doing the right things. To be truly effective as leaders, we need to be able to move fluidly from strategic thinking to operational thinking and back. Both are critical, and neither is a substitute for the other.
In closing, this is something many of us don’t face until we’re into our careers for 10 or more years, and by then we’ve built up some strong business habits. To break through these established practices and “up our game,” this is an ideal time to engage an executive coach, especially one who’s “been there.”