Many executives face the prospect of strategic planning with a certain amount of dread. Some of this may be the result of poorly designed processes that make strategy meetings dull and useless, but some comes from the anxiety we feel when we consider an uncertain future. This anxiety comes from three main issues:
The future is uncertain
We don’t know everything that’s going to happen in the future. It would be pretty dull if we did, but the unknown is a great cause of stress, too. It’s impossible to make 100% correct decisions without sure knowledge of what’s going to happen, and executives often feel pressure to never make mistakes.
We can’t control the future
Many of the things that will happen are within our control – what new services or products we offer, where we allocate our resources, things like that – but many are not. This is true of all external factors like our markets, competitors, technology, the economy, and government regulation. Having a stake in the outcome, but little or no control is inevitably stressful.
Change can be unpleasant and threatening
One of the biggest issues that comes up is that, since the future will be different from today, your recipe for success may need to change. The discomfort of this change is a normal human experience, and the threat is very real. What if your new recipe isn’t as good as the old recipe? Might we end up with a recipe for failure? It’s perfectly sensible to find these questions frightening.
So – how do we handle these fears?
First, ignoring or hiding the issue you fear will not make it go away.
Changing technology will change your industry, whether you examine it or not – and whether you have a strategy for it or not. Same for new regulations, demographic changes and changes in the economy. This means that the ostrich strategy of sticking your head in the sand is not at all useful.
Second, we need to understand what we control and what we don’t control.
It won’t pay to expend time and money trying to manage a change you can’t control, and yet, we often feel an urge to do this. It’s critical, in strategic planning, to have a sense of where our time and money will have the biggest impact on adapting to change.
Third, we have to let go of perfectionism and the tendency to try to control everything.
Everyone will be much better off if we take a more statistical approach to the future – knowing that a choice that’s 90% likely to produce a good outcome is a good choice, even with a chance of failure. We can’t force reality to respond to everything we want, so good choices will usually – but not always – work out. It’s very human to kick yourself for good choices that turn out badly, but great companies are characterized by the resilience of learning from those outcomes and using that learning in the future.
Fourth, regularly review your assumptions to keep tabs on how well your company is doing versus what you expected.
Assumptions are temporary estimates of likely future events and developments which would have a significant effect on your business and over which you have little or no control. When your assumptions are off target, you may need to revise your strategies to meet the changing conditions. By doing this regularly, you will continually modify your course and direction toward the optimal results you are seeking.
How do you face the uncertainty in strategic planning? Do you have any stories about how you’ve handled it? We’d love to hear about it, and talk with you about how to improve your current choices and learn about making better choices in the future. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out about some tools that can help you come out on top. Consider holding a one-day workshop on Simplified Strategic Planning.
M. Dana Baldwin is Senior Strategist with Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc. He can be reached by email at: email@example.com