Integrating Foresight into Strategy Development

Strategic planning, in its accepted formulaic mode, passed its use-by date a long time ago. What’s next?

Integrating Foresight into Strategy Development

Strategic planning, in its accepted formulaic mode, passed its use-by date a long time ago. Yet it remains common practice in organisations.

Strategic planning has become a routine part of business with an associated set of beliefs and protocols that underpin its day-to-day practice. Its process has been adapted over time but remains basically unchanged. The need to plan has spawned thousands of books, countless software systems and has kept many consultants in work. Yet as Mintzberg (1994) indicates, “planning lacks a clear definition of its own place in organizations” and this conventional approach and its accompanying set of practices has now passed its use by date.

Planning is often defined as an encompassing process that captures all the tasks and processes needed to develop strategy for an organisation’s future, including scanning the environment for change, strategic thinking, strategic decision making about future options, documenting and implementing plans, and then monitoring outcomes. Strategic planning is not about planning strategically; Mintzberg (1994) reminds us that the term itself is an oxymoron. Strategy is about positioning an organisation for the future while strategic planning is the way we go about documenting action to be taken to implement that strategy today.

Peter & Jarratt (2015) describe two perspectives on planning - prescriptive and descriptive. Conventional planning equates to their prescriptive mode:

… strategy development as based on deterministic processes, where the analysis of the organisation, performance, and environment forms a rational, long-term plan. The imposed planning approach embodies a formal process involving the application of traditional analytical tools that assist in defining the organisation and the space in which it competes and tends to locate strategy formation at the top management level.

Using foresight infused strategy development equates to their emergent and adaptive planning mode that:

… views organisations as refining their strategies incrementally as new information indicates changing environments … strategising involves sense-making around new information and de-emphasizing historical constraints … top management stimulating ideas and structuring the emerging strategic impetuses of the organisational subsystems.

Organisations often respond to rapid change in their external environments by adopting shorter planning cycles where change that’s coming that could disrupt an organisation’s business model completely is often missed. A longer-term perspective that is structured, formula-free, based on strong strategic thinking and that lets new information into the organisation is what is needed now.

Taking this longer-term approach means integrating foresight into strategy development where it is used on a continuing basis to inform strategy development. Thinking about futures then becomes part of strategy and decision-making and part of the organisation’s culture. Foresight infuses existing strategy processes with the essential futures perspective to a degree that just isn’t possible in conventional planning.

See also Strategic Foresight.

My Perspective

Having written strategic plans for many years in an earlier role in universities,  I moved from a position where I thought plans made total sense to a reframing of their purpose and content and a desire to toss out all those planning rulebooks that are still published today.

I came to see planning as designed to produce a glossy plan and more of a marketing document than a guide for policy and decision making in the present. I started to advocate for a one-page strategy document and supporting operational plans rather than an all encompassing strategic plan. I also began to suggest that strategic planning workshops should be replaced by strategic thinking workshops - or to have a thinking activity of some sort before the planning activity to give equal attention to both parts of the process. And then I decided strategic planning is well past its use-by date and that we needed to shift our attention to strategic foresight.