Why ‘Strategic Plans’ Are Rarely Strategic—or Effective

By Wyatt Wells (WSJ)

Oct. 25, 2019 5:56 pm ET

Effective managers can list their goals on a note card. They don’t need long recitations of bromides.


Auburn University at Montgomery, where I teach, recently completed a common organizational ritual: It drafted a strategic plan. The process took months and entailed work by a variety of committees, at considerable expense. When it was completed, faculty and staff applauded. Then most, on returning to their offices, promptly consigned the new document to the trash. In the majority of organizations, workers respond to strategic plans with the same cynicism, nodding and smiling in public while sighing and rolling their eyes in private.

The typical strategic plan begins with an anodyne statement of principles, lists several general goals, and finally recounts a series of initiatives that the institution will undertake to realize these objectives. In its statement of principles, AUM’s plan asserts that the university seeks to “provide quality and diverse educational opportunities,” offering a “student-centered experience” with “excellence as our standard.” These are more specific than Google’s old mantra, “Don’t be evil,” but not much. Presumably every institution of higher learning shares these goals—none would boast that “adequacy is our standard.”

Strategic plans offered by businesses are rarely much better, in most cases stating that the company “seeks to be a leader” in whatever field it happens to occupy. Such bromides no more constitute a plan than an injunction to “do a good job” represents workplace training.

Next comes the list of goals that, if accomplished, will turn vision into reality. At AUM, the most important of these is, “Enhance pathways for educational success,” followed by, “Enhance a culture/community of scholars.” AUM’s planners apparently believe that these goals will distinguish it from the many institutions of higher learning that proudly trumpet their intention to obstruct educational success and degrade scholarship.

Likewise, companies seek to “enhance consumers’ experience” as well as “enhance morale among employees,” as if most of their competitors believe that aggravating customers and frustrating staffers is the key to success. The word “enhance” appears over and over because it allows planners to avoid specifics and ignore where their institution stands. A company with a good reputation and another that customers are deserting in droves can both “enhance consumers’ experience,” but their needs are very different. Such statements connote no more than a desire to do better, providing neither standards nor priorities.

The body of most strategic plans lists a variety of specific initiatives that will accomplish these nebulous objectives. Some of these are as vague as the principles and goals. AUM’s plan calls for adopting “national advising best practices standards,” without outlining what those are, and for implementing “diversity learning outcomes,” a phrase with no obvious meaning. Others on the list are efforts already under way.

Planning committees find it easier to recount initiatives in progress than to devise new ones, and more than a few administrators use planning to justify what they are already doing. AUM included “acceptance into NCAA Division II” as an initiative, even though the process was almost complete. Finally, there are a few specific objectives designed to impress outsiders and motivate (or intimidate) workers. AUM’s strategic plan calls for an increase in enrollment from the current 5,500 to 7,000 over the next four years.

The last exercise can be particularly damaging because planners often set goals with an eye to making an impression, not to conditions on the ground. AUM has neither the faculty nor the facilities to accommodate 7,000 students. Several years ago, enrollment approached 6,000 and the school was unable to offer all the classes students needed.

Notably, the strategic plan does not identify where AUM might get the resources to hire new faculty members or expand its facilities. Nor does it state where the school will find these students. Presumably the “student-centered experience” and “enhanced pathways for educational success” will draw them. The target is nothing more than grandstanding. AUM needs a thoughtful evaluation of its faculty and facilities as well as the student population it serves, not goals plucked from the air.

Companies often do the same thing, setting “stretch” targets that exceed their projections. These no doubt keep employees anxious and give executives an excuse to bully subordinates who fall short. Yet they obstruct rational evaluation of the market and the organization and often become ends in themselves because once leaders have set goals, they are reluctant to concede that they might have misjudged the market or imposed unrealistic burdens on subordinates.

Strategic planning, the way it’s practiced by most institutions in the U.S., is a fraud. At its best, it’s little more than a public-relations exercise, stating what people in the organization already know. Good managers can usually list their goals on a note card and explain how they intend to achieve them on a few sheets of paper. They have a plan and so have no need of planning. Strategic planning merely offers incompetent managers a shield, hiding their lack of understanding and direction under a blanket of orotund verbiage.

Mr. Wells is a professor of history at Auburn University at Montgomery and author of the forthcoming “Permanent Revolution: Reflections on Capitalism.”