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Why your strategic planning process should be agile — not linear

Aug 20, 2019
By: Marcie Bomberg-Montoya
Financial Institutions

Has your organization tended to view the strategic planning process as linear? In many organizations, leadership develops a plan that outlines the organization’s strategic priorities, shapes its goals and drives its action plans. A leads to B, which leads to C and so on, until annual review time when the plan is updated.

In practice, that linear strategic plan is also rather static. It’s informed and evaluated from the top down, with long cycles between each planning event. 

While that traditional approach can still be effective for some organizations, it has two notable weaknesses: It limits an organization’s ability to adapt to rapidly changing market dynamics, and it commonly fails in execution. 

Why? Because implementing the plan is such a widespread challenge. It’s why strategic planning is so often greeted with sighs and cynicism. A sort of “here we go again” malaise hangs over the organization as plans are made and then so often shelved, only to be dusted off and reviewed at next year’s planning event. 

Breaking the cycle

High-performing organizations have found a way to break that cycle. Instead of a strategic plan that’s linear and static, they use processes that allow them to be proactive and future-thinking. 

They understand that technology is driving rapid change in the marketplace, and they implement infrastructure to pivot quickly. As a result, these high performers are consistently ready to capture new opportunities and get ahead of potential threats. 

But to get there, leaders need to rethink their approach to strategic planning to transform the way the entire organization not only executes but also shapes that plan. It’s far less about strategic planning as an “event” and more about strategic planning as a way of being. 

The agile approach to strategic planning 

A paradigm shift and greater emphasis on strategic management bring us to a new way of thinking about the strategic planning process — agile planning.

As a method of project management, agile emerged in the early 2000s as a new approach to software development. Instead of what was known as “waterfall development,” in which the organization created a plan for a technology solution and then waited until completion day to figure out whether what they got was really what they wanted and needed, the agile approach used an iterative development process that accommodated and welcomed frequent redesign. 

Developed as a way to drive productivity, the agile approach breaks down work into bite-sized steps in a way that allows for consistent feedback, positive reinforcement (the power of small wins) and course correction. 

Another core element of the agile approach is cross-functional teaming. With greater input from across the organization, software projects (and strategic plans) benefit from a wider perspective and the elevated sense of purpose and buy-in that come from giving teams a participative role in the development process.

In summary, agile promotes the following: 

  • Frequent inspection and adaptation, as well as constant reexamination 
  • A leadership philosophy that fosters teamwork, self-organization and accountability
  • A strategic approach that aligns development with stakeholder needs and organizational goals 

And it’s most effective when: 

  • Projects are complex.
  • It’s difficult to fully define the scope or set requirements at the beginning of a project.
  • Projects are likely to have many changes or updates during the project life cycle.

Sounds like a perfect fit for a modern strategic plan, right? 

The age of agility

In the past, we might have been able to view a strategic plan like a building blueprint. We had detailed instructions to build on a strong and stable foundation. But in the age of digital disruption, we have to let go of our expectations for concrete foundations. Sands are shifting. 

We live in disruptive times, and the speed of change is ever-increasing. Agile planning is the only way to stay on top of those changes. And perhaps more, it’s an effective way to create a strategic planning culture — one where the strategic plan becomes a living, breathing tool instead of an annual event, labored over at the top but all too often left to rot in the desk drawer. 

Strategic advisory services

With a range of strategic planning services, Wipfli helps leaders and their teams maximize their ability to think strategically and then achievetheir short- and long-term goals. Contact us to discuss how to transform strategic thought and execution in your organization. 


Marcie Bomberg-Montoya, OCI, OEI
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