Most “strategic plans” are toilet paper

Right now I mostly freelance, and at a given time I’m maybe working with 12–15 different companies of all sizes. Everyone, and I mean everyone, talks about their strategic road map. It’s the absolute standard bearer for breathless business analysis at most places. “We have a strategic road map,” the theory goes, “so by definition we’re strategic, and subsequently we will make a bunch of money and prove lots of growth to our investors!”

In reality, none of that is true — and honestly, constantly talking about your strategic road map makes you sound like a total d-bag. Let’s break this down a little bit further if we can.

The strategic road map: What should it be?

This one is hard for a lot of people. Most people in decision-making roles at companies confuse “strategy” with “operations.” Let’s make it simple: strategy is what you intend to do (and why), whereas operations is how (and where) you will do those things. They are by no means the same, but a lot of people fail to realize that. When we often discuss our “strategic planning initiatives,” we’re leaving a ton out.

So, what should a strategic road map look like?

IMHO:

  • Some priority definition: Many companies are absolutely terrible at “This is a priority and this is not,” which allows many “Everything has a sense of urgency” managers to rise up. There’s nothing good about that. It just creates stress for most employees. (See also: “Inbox Zero, discussions about.”)

The strategic road map: Ever heard of agility?

I’ve worked (full-time and freelance) at probably 19 places that have someone with the word “agility” or “agile” in their job title. This is a major business development fad (yes, ’tis a fad) of the last two-three decades. The thinking is: if you’re agile, you’re nimble. And if you’re nimble? You can hit targets in a variety of situations. That must be good for business, right?!? Right!

Wrong.

Here’s the problem with the “strategic road map” at most companies: once the road map is set, it’s intractable. That’s the opposite of agile. So a bunch of people work on this strategic road map for weeks/months, and then it’s set and approved. At that point, if a business need changes, the road map often can’t subsequently changed. “That’s out of scope,” someone will bellow. “We’ve already begun sprints and work assignments,” another will yelp.

Use the words “road map.” Now think about this. Let’s say you’re driving from New York to Philadelphia. You are using a map. Waze, a technology, tells you that a 18-wheeler overturned on I-95. You decide to use local roads to get to Philly quicker.

You just called an audible. In essence, you were agile. There was a concern regarding your outcome/goals, and you adjusted to meet that concern. That’s a very logical series of steps and decision-making. At no point did you say “I must stay on I-95 because that is my strategic road map.”

Now, individuals and companies are different inherently — but companies stay the course all the time. Why is this, though?

The strategic road map and process

In short, it’s because they cherish process — especially “process for the sake of process.” This ultimately murders business results, but no one cares.

The point of most process is really this:

  • Protect the upper levels from doing work

If you ever work at a place that tells you a strategic road map can’t be edited once it’s set due to a variety of process reasons, you’re working at the wrong place. Strategy, by definition, is fluid. It’s a response to customers’ needs/wants and market conditions. If it’s locked in beyond a shadow of a doubt, it’s not strategy. It’s just garbage fart process.

The douchebag nature of people who constantly say “Strategic road map”

You’ve all worked with this person. In many cases, they’re not describing strategy — they’re describing a series of boxes that need to be checked. (Again, that’s operations, not strategy.) I sometimes think people use terms like “strategic road map” because it makes them feel more adult or professional or business-like. In reality, they probably have little idea what they’re saying or what it really means. “Everyone else seems to be using this term, and I want to fit in, so I shall as well!”

It’s pretty annoying and dithering, but it happens at companies of all sizes.

How do we improve the idea of a strategic road map?

Mostly addressed this above. The cheat sheet:

  • Set clear priorities and goals

In short, then: a strategic road map requires an understanding of actual strategy, as opposed to just pounding your chest and blabbering about it. Does your company have that?

My name’s Ted Bauer. Want to get after it?

Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/work-with-me/

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