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When everything is changing, this is what you must do to plan strategically

Deal with reality Folks!

When is Strategic Planning more than just Planning Strategically?

I just got off a call with a wonderful person whom I suspect has a commitment is even bigger than mine to the role of public agencies protecting the public good…

We were talking about strategic planning (theirs). After many, many conversations this last two years (COVID years) about how to plan in a fundamentally uncertain environment. in this conversation I realised that I’ve distilled two things I think are really important to consider.

The First Thing: Context is decisive

There’s a famous apocryphal story about how a woman left her bag of groceries leaning against a wall in an art gallery by mistake. When she returned the next day her ‘installation’ had won first prize in the art competition she hadn’t realised was being conducted…


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This was a great question in my philosophy classes about “What is Art” but it also serves to highlight the role of context, and it’s the context that we need to increasingly bend our mind these days (rather, bend it to consciously because it’s happening either way).

A normal thing taken out of context can be something extraordinary, and the opposite can also be true. In a previous life I used to sell artwork in Paris. It was A LOT easier selling a piece well-framed and lit on a wall than the same thing leaning against a wall in a dusty attic.

The thing is the same, but the context is different.

It is such a truism to say that things are changing all the time… that phrase simply doesn’t cut it anymore. Things aren’t changing, the actual CONTEXT IS CHANGING.

That’s what is sooo discombobulating. Not only do we not know what’s going to happen in the future, but we also don’t know the context in which we’re going to be operating. Will global supply-chains ever get reformed fully (probably not); will strategic competition and the GZERO world ramp up to the point of ‘hot’ conflict (probably at some point); will climate change unpin some for the foundations of what we’ve gotten used to as normal (yup).

It’s not the context we’re worried about anymore, it’s the whole bloody-thing!

So, back to Strategic Planning.

Increasingly when I’m asked to talk about strategic planning, I try to shift the conversation to the context in which the strategic planning is taking place. It’s one thing to talk about where you/we want to be in 2,5, 10 years’ time (and I LOVE that I’m getting asked more and more to talk about 10 years and less about 2) but another to talk about the environment in which you will exist in 2,5 or 10 years. And really, how can we authentically talk about where the organisation or agency should be if we’re not first talking about the world in which it operates?

It was ok (perhaps) to take a narrower view when we felt we could legitimately expect the world to more-or-less the same (extrapolated on a linear path from the past, through now, and to that future date) but that particular event horizon has long passed beneath us and we’re well into the space-time vortex leading to an inexorable, and unknowable, future now…

The Second Thing: Look from OUTSIDE in, not INSIDE out

This is the operative element: what you DO to create the context and explore the fundamental assumptions etc that are driving your thinking.

If I’ve the chance to run a deliberate process with people I tend to use tools from the discipline of Foresight (and increasingly our own, little virtual Foresight Project), but you can also just do it in normal conversation too.

I strive to help people (myself included) look at their entity from an external standpoint. What does it look like from outside in different possible futures in which you could be operating?

Some of those future worlds (scenarios) you’ll love, some you’ll hate, but they’re all possible and what does that mean for how you position yourself, the services you develop and provide, the relationships/networks you need to spend effort on? What influence do you have over outcomes in different scenarios? What’s consistent, what’s not… can you hedge and prepare a bit for a few different things or do you want to go hell-for-leather at one preferred vision?

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When you shift the conversation about the future of the enterprise from sitting in the seat driving the race to sitting in the stands observing it, there are suddenly so many rich questions to ask!

It’s a small tweak perhaps, but also really, not so small!

P.S. for all those of you who have done a bunch of personal development over the years (all of you?), you’ll recognise the resonances in your own journey and relationships (‘get over yourself’)


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