The bad news is that traditional planning won’t help you. The good news is that my Pioneering approach will.

By Jim Whitt

When I left to speak at a conference in Australia in October of 2008 the U.S. dollar was worth $1.27 in Australia. When I boarded the plane to come home two weeks later it was worth $1.52. The world’s financial markets nearly collapsed and the stock market was a rollercoaster ride of historic highs and lows.. The conference theme was Embracing Change. Talk about change — I boarded the plane in the United States, flew to the bottom of the world and by the time I got back the world had turned upside down.

Only 5-10% of strategic plans are ever implemented…

The only way to truly embrace change is to anticipate and prepare for it. So, from an organizational perspective, that’s accomplished with strategic planning, right? I hate to tell you this but according to Dr. Robert Burke, another speaker at the conference, only 5-10% of strategic plans are ever implemented. I reached the same conclusion many years ago, so I stopped doing strategic planning with organizations and developed a different approach. That approach is similar to what Burke calls Beyond Strategy and what Steve Tighe, another speaker at the conference, calls Strategic Foresight. A couple of Aussies, Tighe is the founder of Chasing Sunrises and Burke is the Program Director for Mt. Eliza Executive Education at Melbourne Business School.

Most strategic and innovation efforts fail because they get the future wrong!

“All of your strategic and innovation decisions are played out in the future,” says Tighe. “And the one certainty about the future is that it will be different to today. So why do organizations persist in looking to the past to make decisions about their future? Many simply take today’s trends and project them forward. As a consequence, most strategic and innovation efforts fail because they get the future wrong!” I agree. Traditional strategic planning looks only three to five years ahead. Think back five years ago. How long does that seem? About a millisecond in your mind, right? If you only look five years into the future, it’s also only about a millisecond in your mind. So, the 5-10% of strategic plans that actually do get implemented get the future wrong because they see the future as an extension of the present and the present as an extension of the past. As proof, you have to look no further than what’s happened to the world’s major financial institutions the last few months. As opposed to projecting forward from the present, Tighe’s approach, Strategic Foresight, is a process that involves working back from the future.

You have to go beyond strategy…

Now, let’s consider Dr. Burke’s approach. He describes Beyond Strategy as “the facilitation of free flowing fruitful conversations that recreates the constraining themes, norms and values of a group’s identity and at the same time allows emergence of difference and innovative change. Essential in this is the personal narrative exploring our own identity — a reflexive methodology. Anticipatory action learning can be seen as an inner search for meaning and purpose as a futures experience through a search for a preferred future.”

OK, that’s pretty academic so here’s my translation of what I think he’s saying: This process (Beyond Strategy) doesn’t restrict an organization to its current form or what made it successful in the past but looks at what it could be in the future. It’s writing a story about what that looks like and what we think we’re going to have to be and do to be successful. It requires us to look deep inside ourselves and collectively create a picture of our future where we’ll find meaning and purpose, not just as a group but as individuals. I had to travel to the other side of the world to do it, but I found someone in academics who concurred with my purpose-based approach to personal and organizational development.

What will your organization need to look like to succeed?

The process I use to help organizations plan for the future shares much in common with the approaches used by Burke and Tighe. I ask organizations to look 30 years into the future, paint a picture and in the words of Steve Tighe, work their way back. What does the world and your industry look like? What will your organization need to look like to succeed? What’s your purpose, your operating philosophy and your business model? To get people to buy into a plan it must have meaning for them, or to use Dr. Burke’s terminology, go beyond strategy. People want and need to identify with a common purpose that is collectively bigger than their individual selves. They want to be partners in a cause. Then they must see how their pieces of the puzzle (the individual’s own unique purpose) fits into the big picture of the organization’s purpose (what Dr. Burke calls the personal narrative exploring our own identity).

As Dr. Phil likes to ask, how’s that working for you?

My approach is really a process of mental Pioneering — taking a trip to the future and writing a history of what happens between then and now. All of the goals you need to achieve are contained in that history. Implementation then becomes a matter of living the history. And as in the case with real pioneering it is hard work. It requires a lot of time, energy and money. Consequently, most organizations opt for the much easier process of projecting present trends (the traditional strategic plan) that Steve Tighe describes. But wait a minute — only 5-10% of strategic plans are ever implemented. So, why do they do it at all? Dr. Burke says the reason organizations do strategic planning is to reduce anxiety. That’s interesting isn’t it? It makes them feel better. It’s like taking a couple of aspirin for a headache. In this case the headache is the future. The aspirin is two days locked in a room putting checkmarks in the appropriate boxes. Mission statement (yada, yada, yada): check; SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats): check; long range goals (3-5 years): check; put plan on shelf: check. Ah, that feels better. And like the aspirin bottle, the plan is put back on the shelf. But the future, like the headache, keeps coming back. As Dr. Phil likes to ask, how’s that working for you?

The traditional approaches to planning haven’t served us well. To succeed in the future, you have to go Beyond Strategy, engage in Strategic Foresight and do some serious Pioneering.

To learn more about how Jim Whitt can help you call 918-494-0009 or