I have been facilitating strategic planning for the past 30 years in organizations large and small, and seen the spectrum of success – from organizations that actually transform themselves, to those that eventually “go away” (out of business, merged) due to inability to implement a new direction.  Here are the biggest mistakes that I see leadership teams make in strategic planning. 

1. Not Understanding Your Current Culture

The old adage that “Culture eats strategy for lunch” is true – along with breakfast and dinner. If you are oblivious to what your culture is, what causes it and how it operates, my bet is that your strategic planning process actually REINFORCES your current culture. That’s great, if your culture is highly Constructive[1]. If it’s not, however – you won’t get the results you hope for.     

If you wonder why your strategic planning efforts fall short or plans are never implemented, then the issue is your culture, not your plan. You probably have a Defensive[2] culture — one in which people feel they need to protect themselves to maintain their own security as member of your organization.  The impact of a Defensive culture is that people avoid engaging, are reluctant to put forth ideas, are wary of change, and may actively undermine your plan. 

I was actually hired by one very prescient CEO who said, “you are the fifth consultant/facilitator we’ve hired. I take the leadership team off-site for two days every year to do strategic planning, but nothing is ever implemented. I am wondering if we have a culture problem.” We found out he did, by assessing that first, and then building a planning process that actually started to change culture at the same time.

2. Lack of Leadership Cohesion

For me, this is often a leading indicator of a Defensive culture. If the leadership team is not cohesive,  they will often enter into strategic planning with competing agendas and group dynamics that produce a “lukewarm” plan to which they tepidly commit.  Sometimes they try to work this out in the process of strategic planning; other times I suggest working with the team in advance to deal with some of the dynamics before starting planning. 

If the leadership team is NOT cohesive coming out of strategic planning, individual leaders will work their own agendas — sending mixed messages about direction and priorities down into the organization. This creates anxiety for employees at all levels who want to do the right thing but don’t know who to please. The result is that some employees “lay low” (opt-out, try to avoid blame) while others may get more aggressive (argue, oppose, just do and ask questions later). Both sets of behaviors are the opposite of authentic employee engagement.

3. Benevolent Paternalism / Lack of Engagement

Engagement is not culture – it is the outcome of culture.  You need to get to the underlying beliefs, values, and expectations (often unwritten and yet strongly reinforced) that causes an employee to engage or not.

One of the expectations that I have found in organizations when doing strategic planning is what I call “benevolent paternalism” — i.e. the belief that leaders need to shield employees from information that might worry them.  The result of this belief is that execs and managers do not share what is happening in the larger world and how the organization needs to adapt. 

I have found that when employees and stakeholder are authentically brought into the planning process and work with leaders to create a shared understanding of current reality, they are invaluable in defining strategy that will actually work. They are also more willing to see their own roles, to trust leaders to lead, and to endure the discomfort of implementation. Why? Because now they truly understand “The Why”.

Successful strategic planning is based on a shared understanding of current reality as well as a shared vision for the future. That means that both execs and employees are working together to create these shared pictures – from employees understanding the potential impact of economic and geopolitical forces, to execs understanding the conditions of the workplace and the capacity of employees to weather these forces. Having authentic conversations together about the totality of current reality and where the organization needs to go creates that shared vision.    

4. Not Planning for Adaptability

Many folks think that once a plan is done, they don’t need to revisit it again for another year. At the beginning of implementation, strategies are straightforward because they were based on the current reality at the time. However, we know too well that reality changes quickly these days, and part of the work of strategic implementation is to determine which of those changes warrants a change in direction.  THAT is what planning checkpoints are all about!

Without formal planning checkpoints, two things can happen, often at the same time. One, the organization continues to follow its road-map even though it gets harder to do and is less effective; and two, those who are sensitive to change in the environment may simply course-correct on their own, potentially creating confusion in the organization as a whole. Often, blame gets cast as people dig into their positions, trust goes down, and chaos ensues. 

Strategic implementation checkpoints should be done more than once a year – I would suggest every 4-6 months.  Checkpoints should be as inclusive as possible and engage employees as well as leaders to do a quick reassessment of current reality (what’s changed since the last look, and what does it mean?) and then determine what needs to change (if anything) as a result, and how.

A Word of Encouragement

If some of these issues resonate with you, know that you are not alone! And if you want some help in doing strategic planning differently, let’s talk. We will design a high-engagement process for your organization based on an assessment of your culture first, so that you begin to change your culture (if needed) in the process of planning and build on it during implementation for lasting success.

About the Author

Cathy Perme is the Managing Partner of Perme & Peterson Associates, LLC. She has run a successful independent consulting firm in Minneapolis for thirty years that has helped hundreds of organizations, from two-person firms to multinational corporations to focus clearly, organize effectively, and act with courage. She enjoys working with all levels of an organization, from CEO’s to line workers, and believes that we all have the opportunity to “take the lead” in our personal and professional lives. 

[1] A term coined by Human Synergistics, Inc. which has been researching and measuring organizational culture for over 46 years. Constructive cultures are correlated with high performance, quality, integrity, teamwork, engagement and effective communication.

[2] The opposite of Constructive, this term by Human Synergistics, Inc. describes cultures that are correlated with bureaucracy, poor quality, lack of engagement, internal politics and high stress and turnover.



Catherine M. (Cathy) Perme is a partner at Peterson & Perme Associates, LLC and the author of “Confucius in My Cubicle: Practical Wisdom for the Leader in All of Us” (2017), available on Amazon.

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