Strategic planning: a practice perspective

Published on March 5, 2014 Reviewed on February 28, 2018   55 min

A selection of talks on Strategy

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Hello. My name is Ann Langley. I'm a professor in Management and I hold the Canada Research Chair in Strategic Management in Pluralistic Settings at HEC Montreal. The chair is dedicated to the study of Strategic Management Processes in Complex Organizations. Since my doctoral thesis, I've always been interested in how organizations use strategic management tools and in particular, strategic planning. So I'm really pleased to be participating in this series of talks on strategy as practice to discuss research on strategic planning viewed from a practice perspective.
Here is the outline of my talk today. First, I think it's important to briefly address the question of what we mean by the term strategic planning. Second, I'll discuss some of the early research on strategic planning and identify its main findings. The bulk of my talk, however, will be devoted to an exploration of strategic planning seen as a social practice. And I'll draw on more recent research, much of it qualitative in nature. I will draw on a framework that has four dimensions to talk about this. I'm going to focus first on textural practices, then on production practices, then on consumption practices, and then on temporal dynamics. I'll explain as we go along what those terms mean, then I'll end with a short conclusion.
So, what is strategic planning, after all?
From a practice perspective, the definitions are rather sticky things. In fact, the meanings underlying labels are reconstructed over time, and in successive performances of the practice. This is the case with strategic planning, quite definitely. Its definition has evolved and the term is used in different ways by different people. In early definitions like this one by Robert N. Anthony dating back to 1965, the definitions often seem pretty similar to the definition of strategy itself. Although the desire to output in the process is mentioned in terms of generating organizational objectives, the nature of that process precisely what is involved in deciding on them is not really specified. If we move to the next definition, this one is much more explicit about the process. This comes from a very popular book on public and nonprofit sector planning by John Bryson and it clearly sets up planning as involving a deliberative disciplined effort. In other words, a CEO musing about what to do in an informal way would not deserve the label strategic planning. The third definition I've shown here is by Henry Mintzberg, who's actually one of the critics of strategic planning. He also mentions a formalized procedure. But I wanted to draw your attention here to the reference to an articulated result in the form of an integrated system of decisions. There's a clear implication here that strategic planning actually produce some form of text, an articulated result. This is something that I think is important in these definitions. Finally, I wanted to show you this last definition which is a very recent one published in a literature review on strategic planning by Carola Wolf and Steve Floyd. Note that they first seemed to nuance the idea of formalization in the definition, but then, they add two other elements that we've not seen clearly in the other ones. The first is the notion of periodicity. So, we're referring to a process that's repeated at fairly different, fairly regular intervals. And second idea is that planning is not only about formulating strategy, but also about implementation and control. So, this is an additional element clearly based on all these different definitions, strategic planning could encompass quite a range of different things depending on who one talks to. So, what are we actually talking about really? There could be various ways to respond to that. One would be to say the strategic planning is whatever you want it to mean. Another would be to throw up our hands as Aaron Wildavsky famously did when he said, "If strategic planning is everything, then maybe it's nothing." What I'm going to do is basically look at this list and take out what I consider to be the most central elements and focus on those. And these are the ones that I'll be referring to throughout the rest of the talk.