Jack Welch, former Chairman of GE, articulated one of the most famous strategies in business. Paraphrased, it said, “We'll be number 1 or 2 in a line of business, or we'll get out of that business.”
Powerful stuff. There aren't many people with the guts to make that kind of strategic commitment. And that's what that statement is; a commitment to an organization's long term position in a given arena. A clear guideline for all those involved, that their performance and behavior must take into account this future state.
When we listen to our colleagues, clients and prospects use the term “strategic planning”, we wonder what they really mean, because when pressed for an explanation, they usually say that they're working on “next year's goals”. This is not strategic planning. In fact, from our perspective, there is no such thing as strategic planning. One can only formulate strategy. Executable goals bring a strategy to fruition. Executable goals and planning how to achieve them can incrementally lead to the point where a strategy has become the reality. A strategy is too big, too amorphous to get a human head around in the executable sense.
It has been said that poor execution will sink the best strategy. Trying to execute directly on a strategy just can't get the desired results. Generally, it gets poor results and many unintended consequences. Creating a system of organizational goals can get the desired results. One can make plans to achieve goals. Goals are the most powerful tool for human achievement. Goal setting is a technology and an art. It takes into account the realities of the moment and the possible futures.
Peter Drucker said that when making decisions, one must do it with the absolute knowledge that the information being used will probably be obsolete before the outcome of the decision is reached. That's the risk inherent in taking the action required to achieve goals that will support a strategic commitment. It is also why one can not execute directly on a genuine strategy. The time line is too long and the unknowns are myriad.
In our over 30 years of consulting experience, we have learned that small and mid-size organizations can get along without explicit strategy, but not without explicit goals. Goals make it possible to know how the organization is doing compared to what it wanted to do during any given period. Without them, people in organizations concentrate on “activity” and eventually become enslaved by it. (I believe Robert Heinlein said that). Real appraisal of performance can happen when there are goals. Without them, appraisal sessions tend to become a bully pulpit for the manager.
Strategy is a wonderful concept, to be embraced at the right time in an organization's development. The time is always right for goals.