Many of my clients enter the strategic planning process cautiously, dubiously even; many of them are leaders with decades of experience, which means they have been here before. They have gotten their hopes up, felt the great energy in the room as people shared new ideas, and then they have seen how nothing came of it. They have loved and lost, and they are not sure it was better to have loved at all. Yet here we are, tentatively trying again.

Strategic planning draws you in with the promise that a new idea, a better strategy, will fix what feels broken. 

When it goes well, the beginning of a strategic planning process breathes new life into your team. Everyone discusses what they want the future to look like. You create or review your vision and mission and look 3-5 years into the future, seeing a wondrous place where you have fixed the problems you currently have and are making a meaningful impact in a way you always hoped you could. When it goes well, the team is energized by this. They like this future they see. They all agree it is where they want to be.

In fact, they want to be there now.

But they are not. 

Everyone in the room has just described a future that they really, really want to be a part of and see happen. But we don’t live in the future. We are here today, in the present existence with all of its problems and broken processes and mediocre outcomes.

Worse yet, even the things we felt okay about in the present now seem less positive when compared to the ideal future we just described. 

This is the trap of strategic planning, goal setting, visioning, manifesting, whatever you want to call it.

You can fall into the trap of getting so caught up in envisioning a better future that you start to doubt what you are doing today. You feel ashamed by the gap between who you want to become and who you are now. You question everything you are currently doing. You doubt the abilities you used to take for granted.

The real challenge of effective strategic planning is to be able to hold both conflicting ideas in your mind at the same time. 

  1. Your organization can be better than it is now.
  2. Your organization is currently doing important meaningful work that should continue.

The mind-bending effect is called cognitive dissonance. It is a normal, natural part of the planning and innovating process. 

To achieve your goals you must cross the chasm of cognitive dissonance.

How do you do that?

  • Hire an experienced facilitator to help you. Just kidding. Not really (contact me for help).
  • First, make sure that in developing your goals and strategies you are grounding them in the present reality. I use the appreciative inquiry methodology because it does a good job of this. You want to identify what’s working well, what are your strengths, where is the untapped potential within your organization. Survey, interview, or otherwise gather stories and data from a representative sample of your organization. For most of the organizations I work with, innovation comes from iteration. Keep doing what you’re doing, just do it better.
  • Second, after you have developed your vision and goal and talked about what success will look like in a few years (or whatever timeline you are working on), pause to acknowledge that you are doing important meaningful work now. Show appreciation for your team. Recognize that this may be a stressful and frustrating moment for people on the team and give a little space and time in your planning process to call that out. Normalize it.
  • Third, as you begin to work towards your goals acknowledge the small wins along the way. Crossing the metaphorical chasm is similar in some ways to crossing an actual chasm, like hiking rim to rim in the Grand Canyon. It’s a long way. It is hard. If you wait until the end to celebrate you may never get the chance because you may have given up by then. Celebrate milestones, but also look for opportunities to enjoy the journey. What is changing for you and your team as you work towards this new goal? How can you embrace it and find the fun? One example — I was on a team where we moved to a new building to save money and be closer to our clients. It was a good strategic move for the organization, but for most of us on the team it was a huge pain. Not only dealing with the disruption of moving, we also had new commutes and had left behind our favorite lunch spots. To embrace the change, a few weeks before the move we started explorer parties where we would go to lunch near the new building and take a walk around the area in order to get acquainted with it. Ethiopian and old fashioned diner for the win!