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Is Strategic Planning Bad? By Alec Hill

Strategic Planning: The Pros and Cons

I recently had the privilege of interviewing an old friend, Roger Parrott, on a Wheaton College podcast, specifically on the topic of strategic planning. The focus? Why ministries ought not to engage in traditional strategic planning.

In his new book – Opportunity Leadership: Stop Planning and Start Getting Results, Roger takes the position that strategic planning is counterproductive and perhaps even unbiblical. As president of Belhaven University for 27 years and one of Education Magazine’s “Ten Most Visionary Education Leaders,” he has certainly earned the right to be heard.

Yet I confess, I had to bite my tongue during the interview. As you see, I love everything about strategic planning – gathering stakeholders, engaging in SWOT analysis, and setting priorities. I even relish the hard work of saying no to secondary options, grinding out budgets, and launching campaigns. 

Over the past few months, I’ve replayed our conversation in my mind. Is Roger correct in saying that three (or four) year plans are wrong-headed? In this essay, I will first summarize his main points and then share my reflections.

Arguments Against Long-Term Strategic Planning (Roger)

(1) The strategic planning process arrogantly presumes that leaders can foresee the future.

Roger labels this “destination planning.” No one predicted Covid, for example, and look at the havoc it has wrought on so many long-term plans.

(2) Mediocre Aspirations

Due to the lengthy participatory process involved in drafting strategic plans, ministries inevitably settle for mediocre aspirations. When all stakeholders must buy in, ministry potential is limited. Far too many people are risk-averse.

(3) Once drafted, strategic plans miss golden opportunities.

This is the crux of Roger’s book. To be fruitful in an ever-changing world, ministries must avoid the rigidity of long-term plans. Speed and nimbleness are needed to walk through unexpected open doors.

(4) The strategic planning processes rely on human wisdom rather than on God’s direction.

Roger compares this difference to a power boat (which we control) versus a sailboat (which God controls). Based on a secular model, traditional strategic planning does not stretch us beyond the best of what we can envision. Subsequently, we settle for less than God’s best.   

Arguments Defending Strategic Planning (Alec)

(1) Strategic planning has a strong biblical basis.

Proverbs tells us that “the plans of the diligent lead to profit (21:5)” and that “those who plan what is good find love and faithfulness (14:22).” Jesus had a long-term strategy to reach the world (Acts 1:8) and Paul made it his “ambition” to reach the western half of the Roman empire after planting churches in major eastern cities (Rom. 15:17-24).

(2) If done correctly, strategic planning combines the best of divine initiative and human responsibility.

Though subordinate, the human role is still vital. Before entering into a planning process, my leadership teams fasted and prayed. As Leighton Ford advises: “To act boldly, we must also take time to listen deeply.” The council at Jerusalem certainly did so when its leaders concluded: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us (Acts 15:28).”  

(3) By focusing on our ministry’s mission, strategic planning centers energy on the highest priorities.

Not only does this flesh out the mission, it but also reduces mission drift.

At InterVarsity, I was surprised by the amount of personal risk I was willing to take for the sake of advancing our core mission to university campuses.   

(4) To be effective, strategic plans must be dynamic and flexible.

Of the plans I’ve overseen, there has probably a 35% differential between the first version and the last. For example, when the Great Recession hit, most of our targets were revised. But the general direction of the plan remained constant. Since none of us can foresee the future, we must hold plans loosely. It is liberating to know up-front that significant editing will occur.    

(5) The strategic planning process promotes common direction, ownership, and accountability.

Rather than relying on the brilliance of the senior leader, it looks to the community for collective wisdom. But note that this does not necessarily require consensus. I often utilized an “80% rule,” meaning that when four of five senior leaders agreed, we moved ahead.

Conclusions

Roger’s book has challenged me to rethink my views on strategic planning and I highly recommend it. Looking for common ground between our positions, I recommend that leaders handle plans with humility and non-sticky fingers. And, when unexpected opportunities emerge, we should gracefully modify our plans and take greater risks.

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Alec Hill is president emeritus of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. This essay is exerted from his book, Living in Bonus Time: Surviving Cancer, Finding New Purpose.

Dr. Roger Parrott will be leading the CEO Forum at the Outcomes Conference 2023. If you are a CEO, you won’t want to miss it. Learn how to think differently about your strategic plans!

REGISTER TODAY!

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