I’ve always thought that the term ‘strategic planning’ was an oxymoron. As a ritual, three-year plans are about as effective to twenty-first century business success as wassailing has been to English apple production. Each may make the people involved feel that they have more control over the end results. The reality is that their performance will actually depend on how they react to the stream of unexpected and unplanned events that will inevitably take place, rather than the effort and energy they put into these up-front activities. The saying “fail to plan and you plan to fail” should be changed to “fail to learn and you learn to fail”.
You cannot therefore set out a long-term plan as if you’re planning a car journey on the national freeways. There is no satellite navigation that will tell you which exits to take. There are no lanes you should stay within. And there is not even a road ahead that shows you the way. If there is, then you’re probably just copying one of your rivals and, more than likely, in a difficult competitive position. Instead, it is better to think of strategy implementation as a sailing adventure across the sea. You may know your destination. You will probably have made sure that you have sufficient skills and resources for the journey ahead. And you will have an idea of the route you need to take. But your actual speed, journey and success will be driven by how well you react to the constantly shifting winds. The ever-changing currents and the rise and fall of the tides.
It’s the strength and suitability of the boat and its crew, rather than the quality of the initial plan that will determine the speed at which the boat travels. As with sailing, the quickest route to strategic success is rarely a straight line. It is, instead, a zig-zag of constant adjustments to environmental conditions. Combined with more dramatic turns and detours to avoid major storms and to take advantage of changes in the prevailing winds and currents. It’s not a “road map” that you need to deliver your strategy. But a “nautical chart”.
In August 2013, for example, Amazon acquired The Washington Post. Following the acquisition, Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, wrote to the staff of The Post about the purchase and what they could expect. In that letter Bezos wrote: “There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment. Our touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about. Government, local leaders, restaurant openings, scout troops, businesses, charities, governors, sports – and working backwards from there. I’m excited and optimistic about the opportunity for invention.” Bezos’s words echo his approach to long-term planning at Amazon where he once said that the company was “fixed on the vision, flexible on the journey.”