It’s Not About the Plan

Business Corporate Management Planning Team ConceptAt the risk of causing shudders among many a leader and consultant, I am not a big believer in strategic plans. In our organization, we use a strategic framework. That might sound like semantics to some, but I don’t see it that way and here is why: One dictates step-by-step actions (how), the other guides decision-making in a specific direction (where). And in today’s fluid, fast-changing environments, pre-ordained actions (how) may be rendered outdated, inappropriate or impossible before the ink is even dry on the plan — regardless of how long one spent creating it in the first place.

Dwight Eisenhower once noted that, “In preparing for battle, I have always found plans are useless but planning is indispensable.” I couldn’t agree more. I am a huge proponent of the strategic planning process, just not the definitive plans that often result. Why? Because over-reliance on a specific process can leave those charged with carrying it out unclear on how to proceed when things don’t go according to the plan . . . and things rarely go exactly according to the plan. (What is that saying . . . Man plans and God laughs?)

Is it critical to know the end goal? Absolutely. Is it helpful to have considered a range of possible scenarios? Yep. Is it important to understand the organization’s priorities? Most definitely. In my experience, however, organizations act their way forward rather than plan their way forward. Individuals within the organization make moment-by-moment decisions regarding the path, the actions, that have the greatest likelihood of moving the organization toward the clearly identified end goal. How can one know two years out, or sometimes even two months out, the best decision given a myriad of ever-changing external variables? And yet, if a specific set of expected actions is outlined in an approved multi-year strategic plan (presumably to which staff are being held accountable), how many people will follow the plan rather than exercising their good judgment?

It is not about the plan. It is about understanding what the organization is trying to accomplish, the assets it brings to the table, the barriers it is likely to encounter, and staff members who have both the context and competencies to make decisions that move the organization closer to its ultimate goal. Smart, well-informed leaders monitoring the situation and making adjustments in the moment will do far more to help an organization succeed than the best thinking from a year ago.

Strategic success is about preparation and priorities. It is not about the plan.

Strategic Fortitude


Yes, I made that term up several years ago, actually for a presentation I was giving at a national conference. I continue to use it because I think it creates an image in people’s mind of what it really takes to succeed in the volatile environments that so many of us face today. The term also seems to prompt people to stand up a little straighter as if to say, “I can do that!”

Webster defines fortitude as “Strength of mind that allows one to endure adversity with courage.” Building on that, my definition of strategic fortitude is “A clearly defined target or passion that allows one to endure adversity with courage.” Strategic fortitude helps you cut through the clutter and noise we all face every day, to identify the right path for your organization based on your goals and non-negotiables. It makes it easier to keep your focus on the right things for your organization, which impacts your decision-making and prevents mission drift. It allows you to made offensive decisions rather than defensive ones, which move you toward your mission much more quickly.

There will be many well-meaning people who will offer you advice along the way. But if they don’t understand your goals, (which are likely different from theirs) they may be leading you down a rabbit trail that will only distract you from your actual target. One of the tricks to this is that strategic fortitude only works when you have clarity and specificity in terms of where you want to go. If your goal is broadly stated, such as “we’re going to help kids”, there are so many ways to reach that goal that your attention will likely be pulled in multiple directions, which only dilutes your ultimate impact. When you focus your passion . . . we will be the Mayo Clinic of trauma and attachment . . . then decision-making becomes easier. So when someone says you should start a school for children with autism because the need is great and funding is available, you can acknowledge the need and also recognize it is not the direction your organization is headed and so you don’t expend energy pursuing the possibility, even though you could probably do it well, because it’s not your mission.

Will people think you’re being short-sighted or narrow-minded? Probably. Will people look at you and shake their head, as if you just don’t know what you’re doing? Quite likely. There is a natural tendency to push back against people who are doing things differently, I supposed because it might call into question the status quo. But seriously, who aspires to reach the status quo?!?

Change is hard, pushback is a given (sorry, no sugar-coating here), but if the end goal is worth it, then you press on. In a strange sort of way, there is a peace and a confidence that comes with a clearly defined target or passion that allows you to endure adversity with courage. And when you get to that place, my friends, you have found strategic fortitude.