This article is designed to provide you with a realistic understanding of some of the advantages and disadvantages of implementing a strategic management system.
Strategic Management vs. Strategic Planning
I have deliberately used the words strategic management and NOT strategic planning. Webster's defines planning as "a proposed or intended course of action, or a formulated scheme setting out stages of procedure". Oxford defines planning as a "formulated or organized method by which a thing is to be done". Yet, when we think of management we tend to think of a systems approach to the optimization of the organization.
Strategic planning still has the connotation of a process that is discrete, separate, and independent from the business of an organization. While strategic management connotes the planning, implementation, evaluation, on-going maintenance, and adjustment of the organization's strategy. Because I believe that strategic management is an integral aspect of an organization's business and not just a once per every three-year retreat, I have used the term strategic management throughout this article.
The Advantages of Strategic Management
Discharges Board Responsibility
The first reason that most organizations state for having a strategic management process is that it discharges the responsibility of the Board of Directors.
Forces An Objective Assessment
Strategic management provides a discipline that enables the board and senior management to actually take a step back from the day-to-day business to think about the future of the organization. Without this discipline, the organization can become solely consumed with working through the next issue or problem without consideration of the larger picture.
Provides a Framework For Decision-Making
Strategy provides a framework within which all staff can make day-to-day operational decisions and understand that those decisions are all moving the organization in a single direction. It is not possible (nor realistic or appropriate) for the board to know all the decisions the executive director will have to make, nor is it possible (nor realistic or practical) for the executive director to know all the decisions the staff will make. Strategy provides a vision of the future, confirms the purpose and values of an organization, sets objectives, clarifies threats and opportunities, determines methods to leverage strengths, and mitigate weaknesses (at a minimum). As such, it sets a framework and clear boundaries within which decisions can be made. The cumulative effect of these decisions (which can add up to thousands over the year) can have a significant impact on the success of the organization. Providing a framework within which the executive director and staff can make these decisions helps them better focus their efforts on those things that will best support the organization's success.
Supports Understanding & Buy-In
Allowing the board and staff participation in the strategic discussion enables them to better understand the direction, why that direction was chosen, and the associated benefits. For some people simply knowing is enough; for many people, to gain their full support requires them to understand.
Enables Measurement of Progress
A strategic management process forces an organization to set objectives and measures of success. The setting of measures of success requires that the organization first determine what is critical to its ongoing success and then forces the establishment of objectives and keeps these critical measures in front of the board and senior management.
Provides an Organizational Perspective
Addressing operational issues rarely looks at the whole organization and the interrelatedness of its varying components. Strategic management takes an organizational perspective and looks at all the components and the interrelationship between those components in order to develop a strategy that is optimal for the whole organization and not a single component.
The Disadvantages of Strategic Management
The Future Doesn't Unfold As Anticipated
One of the major criticisms of strategic management is that it requires the organization to anticipate the future environment in order to develop plans, and as we all know, predicting the future is not an easy undertaking. The belief being that if the future does not unfold as anticipated then it may invalidate the strategy taken. Recent research conducted in the private sector has demonstrated that organizations that use planning process achieve better performance than those organizations who don't plan - regardless of whether they actually achieved their intended objective. In addition, there are a variety of approaches to strategic planning that are not as dependent upon the prediction of the future.
It Can Be Expensive
There is no doubt that in the not-for-profit sector there are many organizations that cannot afford to hire an external consultant to help them develop their strategy. Today there are many volunteers that can help smaller organizations and also funding agencies that will support the cost of hiring external consultants in developing a strategy. Regardless, it is important to ensure that the implementation of a strategic management process is consistent with the needs of the organization, and that appropriate controls are implemented to allow the cost/benefit discussion to be undertaken, prior to the implementation of a strategic management process.
Long Term Benefit vs. Immediate Results
Strategic management processes are designed to provide an organization with long-term benefits. If you are looking at the strategic management process to address an immediate crisis within your organization, it won't. It always makes sense to address the immediate crises prior to allocating resources (time, money, people, opportunity, cost) to the strategic management process.
When you undertake a strategic management process, it will result in the organization saying "no" to some of the opportunities that may be available. This inability to choose all of the opportunities presented to an organization is sometimes frustrating. In addition, some organizations develop a strategic management process that become excessively formal. Processes that become this "established" lack innovation and creativity and can stifle the ability of the organization to develop creative strategies. In this scenario, the strategic management process has become the very tool that now inhibits the organization's ability to change and adapt.
A third way that flexibility can be impeded is through a well-executed alignment and integration of the strategy within the organization. An organization that is well aligned with its strategy has addressed its structure, board, staffing, and performance and reward systems. This alignment ensures that the whole organization is pulling in the right direction, but can inhibit the organization's adaptability. Again, there are a variety of newer approaches to strategy development used in the private sector (they haven't been widely accepted in the not-for-profit sector yet) that build strategy and address the issues of organizational adaptability.
Like any process or tool, there are both advantages and disadvantages to a strategic management process. Unfortunately, many of the disadvantages are because of inappropriate application (often by poor consultants) as opposed to inherent limitations. As with any tool or process, you as the client have the final responsibility to ensure that the strategic management process you are using is appropriate for your needs. While I believe that strategic management in some form can be beneficially applied to most organizations, it is you - the client - who is ultimately responsible for its use or lack thereof.
Ron Robinson is the president of ABARIS Consulting Inc. He can be reached at (519) 472-9788 or firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is provided free of charge, for information purposes only and is not intended, represented or to be inferred as providing advice. ABARIS Consulting Inc. makes no warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability for accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of any information provided in whole or in part within this article.
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