Top 3 Problems with Strategic Plans in the Federal Government: And What to Do About It

Federal clients often come to us with questions about whether and how they should develop a strategic plan for their office or agency. I usually find they don’t really want one, but instead feel like they should.  Maybe they think they need one for their boss, or as a marketing document, or just because that’s what you do. A few even want them so they can drive change in their organization. Although I’d say this last reason is, to steal a term from Seth Godin, the purple cow. You just don’t see it that often. So here are the problems I’ve seen with strategic plans:

1.     The paper they are written on isn’t worth anything. The actual plans themselves with all the great graphics are relatively useless in my mind.  No one really reads them or uses them to do anything.

2.     They are too expensive. Lots of clients outsource the creation of their strategic plans to consultants who go hog-wild billing hours for something they know the client will never use. If you use internal staff time, it can be the same story. You just don’t have to write the check, but the cost is the same.

3.     They breed cynicism. If you’ve been through the strategic planning process a bunch of times, you just lose faith that time and resources spent are worthwhile. That creates a gap in trust with leadership in the organization.

So what to do? I’d say there are two options:

1.     Check the box. If you just need a plan so you have something to pull out of the drawer when someone asks, you can keep it simple. Wikipedia has all the buzzwords and frameworks you need. Pick one and then just fill it in with the key content off the top of your head. If you want it to look more impressive, aka longer, have an intern go write it up to a suitable length. Another option is to copy the format of the plan of the organization above you. That works just as well. This might sound facetious, but if you need to check the box, this is probably the best way to do it.

2.     Commit to make choices and do something differently. This is a much harder option. It means focusing on real change and forgetting about paper artifacts and showpieces. You need to fundamentally challenge your thinking and the results have to be in your performance management system, on your website, in your recruiting process, in the way you train people, in the process of how you do your work, etc. They have to be the heart of your organization and not in a neat plan.

If you aren’t committed, alternative one is a lot more cost effective. But it’s obvious I favor alternative two if you are committed. You can call it a strategic planning process but the output isn’t a strategic plan or at least that isn’t the important output. The agreements and processes you set up for making decisions are the important outcomes.

For example, at my company, we used to try to do formal strategic plans and they just sat and did nothing. It wasn’t until we adopted a set of values that we use to guide decision-making and a governance group that meets regularly to make adjustments, respond to challenges, and take on new opportunities that we saw results. We made those values a part of our hiring process, our training process, and a part of every decision we make.  What were the results: we doubled in size in the year or so after and we’ve built a far stronger culture. That’s a lot better than a pile of paper.

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