If you fail to plan, you plan to fail… the strategic planning dilemma

Sam Pitruzello & Sarina Sorrenti
September 5, 2019

We’ve all heard this saying before. So is it true - will you really fail if you don’t plan? Maybe!

Is there one way to approach strategic planning or are there many methods? What is the best business planning tool? Will strategic planning help you head in the right direction? These questions go to the heart of managing a business and in this article, the first in the series on business plans, we address them from our life experience and leading experts in the field of strategic planning.

Some people meander through life while others take a direct, well planned route. Some simply act on their instincts when opportunities arise.

We recently watched videos on success by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Their mantra for success in life was very similar –have a vision, work hard, don’t listen to negative people. In contrast, billionaire Venture Capitalist Nick Hanauer states in his TED talk that he isn’t the smartest person nor is he the hardest working! While he admits that he just got lucky in life based on his circumstances and when and where he was born, he does have two qualities - a very high tolerance for risk and an instinct for what the future might bring.

This doesn’t require much planning!

So should you plan?

Countless books have been written espousing theories and benefits of strategy and planning in achieving our goals. Over our careers we have been involved in sophisticated strategic plans down to simple one-page plans that have literally been written on the back of a napkin.

However, many businesses do not have any written business plans (some are quite successful), while others have detailed plans that haven’t seen the light of day since they were completed. Too many businesses see the act of writing business strategies and plans as an end in itself rather than an ongoing process where the plans adapt as the market evolves. Strategic plans are a type of business plan. In essence, the strategic plan sits at the top level and is a high level business plan.

A business plan is a detailed plan which includes business risk analysis and competitive analysis. Business plans can incorporate a number of functional plans including marketing plans, sales plans, resource plans, operations plans, people plan and business cases.

What exactly is strategy?

The word strategy has been over-used and even misused, particularly in a business context.

The notion of strategy stems from military language that dates back hundreds if not thousands of years to describe the actions and tactics one would require to win a particular battle or war. Two of the most famous researchers in strategy, Michael Porter and Henry Mintzberg, provided the following definitions for strategy:

“The essence of strategy formulation is coping with competition”, “Strategy can be viewed as building defences against the competitive forces or as finding positions in the industry where the forces are weakest”, Michael Porter
“Strategy in general, and realized strategy in particular, will be defined as a pattern in a stream of decisions. In other words, when a sequence of decisions in some area exhibits a consistency over time, a strategy will be considered to have formed”, Henry Mintzberg

Strategies can be developed in advance, in the form of plans, or they can evolve over time as a stream of significant decisions, reacting to unplanned opportunities. In many businesses, the words strategy and planning are used interchangeably. And there are many terms such as:

goals, mission, vision, purpose, key result area, targets…

that are used in the plethora of vocabulary that describes the act of thinking and espousing the why, what, where and how of business.

Fundamentally, strategy and planning can help us consciously comprehend what business are we in, where are we going and how are we going to get there. One of the assumptions about strategy and planning is that this activity can be the most efficient and effective manner of achieving a competitive advantage and reaching a desired destination.

Here are some tips that can help you when building strategic plans:

  1. Begin with the end in mind. This is Stephen Covey’s 2nd habit of highly successful people. All strategies and planning need to begin with a vision of where you want to be at some point in the future.
  2. Choose your language. It’s critical that the language you use reflects your culture. Language also needs to be consistent across the organisation. So be picky on the terms you use. For example if you use the words goals, actions and results – use them consistently from organisational plans through to personal plans.
  3. Use infographics to support the plans to help people understand the story quickly and effectively. Vision boards can also be a great way to focus on what and where you want to go.
  4. Keep it simple. Apply easy to use tools, templates and models. There are many out there and we will present quite a few of them in our future articles.
  5. Just start planning and writing! Sometimes getting started is the most challenging hurdle. Just start somewhere – anywhere – a napkin, a template, a blank piece of paper, a white board, your journal...

engagePlanning Process

We have developed our own engagePlanning approach which gets the best out of the planning theories and practices. We help organisations focus and effectively and efficiently achieve their potential in a sustainable manner.

Our engagePlanning approach enables businesses to stop, reflect, analyse and plan their future.

The process encourages business to think broadly by reviewing their external environment, stakeholders and internal capabilities. Strategic Plans are usually developed annually and updated quarterly. We have used the one-page strategic plan with large multi-national best practice companies and small-medium businesses. The illustration below shows our engagePlanning process.

Core Focus

The first part of the engagePlanning process involves understanding your core focus - the why, what and how of the business. Having laser focus on where you’re going and why you exist is essential for success.

Analysis & Review

The analysis and review section ensures that you are not working in isolation. This allows you to keep a window open to external opportunities and threats. There are many analysis tools and techniques available and we will cover them in future articles.

Organisational One-Page Plan

The organisational one-page plan is all about focus and communication on what is most important to implement in a twelve month period. The measures created in the one-page plan become your key performance indicators (KPIs) and guide your decision making.

Team & Personal Plans

Team and personal plans need to be in alignment with and mirror the organisational one-page plan. These plans can be used to help focus resources and develop capabilities.

In our next article we will describe the engagePlanning Why-What-How process with practical guidelines.

The development of strategic plans can range from structured and detailed to open and flexible. One can have varying degree of commitment to strategies, the continuum of moving from “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail” through to “strategy is a waste of time - things change too quickly”. It is up to you to choose what approach to business planning best suits you – fully structured, hybrid, opportunistic. Any approach can work for you depending on the situation.

Contact us if you would like any feedback or support with strategic or business plans.

Be all you can be!


Mintzberg, H., 1978. Patterns in strategy formation. Management Science, 24(9), pp.934-948.

Porter, M., 1979. How competitive forces shape strategy. Harvard Business Review, 57(2), pp.137-145.

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