Using Strategic Thinking and Strategic Planning to Effectively Execute

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

In my previous blog post, I positioned thinking and planning strategically as two independent but integrated elements of an effective overall business planning process that would more likely ensure proper and timely execution. There are certainly a number of ways to dissect the topic of strategic planning, why and when it works best, and what is necessary to prevent failure. But, as noted in that blog, we hardly ever consider the business planning process needed to ensure effective strategy. Indeed, in one of my earlier blogs a few years ago, I addressed why execution often fails despite what appears to be a well-developed strategy. This examination identified a number of long-standing myths of best execution practices, namely in the categories of alignment, commitment, communications, performance culture, and executive leadership. The study instead ironically found many of these practices often can get in the way of a successful strategic planning outcome.

The purpose of this follow-up blog, then, is to illustrate two examples of how organizations have used the thinking and planning activities to more fully ensure they properly execute their strategy. While they may not necessarily be “best” practices, they are certainly very solid ones that, if carried out, can deliver meaningful and readily applicable strategic outcomes. It is my belief that strategy without execution is misaligned, while execution without strategy is misdirected. It is not so difficult to fathom that often those good at strategy formulation are not so good at execution. These cases show how both thinking and planning can take root in the process. For each, I have listed the various strategic thinking and planning activities used.

Case #1: A Training and Education Business Focused on the Multi-Family Housing Industry

Strategic Thinking Activities

  • Interviews with board and senior staff members
  • Competitive analysis
  • Industry analysis
  • Description of structuralist vs. reconstructionist approaches
  • SWOT analysis
  • Management capability/competency assessment
  • Customer surveys
  • Success challenges

Strategic Planning Activities

  • Development of mission, vision, values
  • Growth metrics defined
  • Creation of strategic imperatives
  • Listing of key initiatives
  • Critical actions determined
  • Milestones delineated
  • Determination of expected outcomes and performance measures
  • Growth plan defined
  • Identification and assignment of needed resources
  • Listing of endings (things they will stop doing)


Case #2: A Small Liberal Arts College

Strategic Thinking Activities

  • Strategic visioning retreat
  • Micro and macro higher education trends identified
  • Provocateurs and thought leaders invited to speak
  • Future-thinking task force created
  • Case studies reviewed and summarized
  • Burning platforms identified
  • Impact/uncertainty matrix developed
  • Potential future scenarios created

Strategic Planning Activities

  • Review of previous five-year plans
  • Revision of current mission statement
  • Creation of major strategic themes
  • Prioritization of main issues and challenges
  • Questions posed about brand, technology, affordability, advancement, value proposition, and campus utilization
  • Development of a desired future state vision
  • Creation of a success assessment
  • Development of a new five-year plan

As illustrated by the above-listed activities, what takes place during the thinking stage is quite different from what takes place during the planning process. The first assists in pulling all the relevant background information together in one place. The second applies this information to the development of an executional plan to move forward.

While these are examples from perhaps very different businesses in which you are involved, what activities could you apply to your own situation? What strategic thinking and planning activities have you already completed and what ones do you still need to work on? Which stage—thinking or planning—have you tended to lean more toward, and why?

For more insight, check out my book The Complete Guide to Building and Growing a Talent Development Firm.

About the Author

Cohen is founder and principal of the Strategic Leadership Collaborative, a private consulting practice focused on business strategy and development. A 40+ year veteran of the talent development industry, largely on the supplier side, he has demonstrated a proven track record for building equity by growing top and bottom-line performance for eight different consulting enterprises in the education and training industry he has either founded and/or led. He has been called on to consult with numerous firms needing strategic planning guidance, business coaching, and board advisory services.

His latest book is The Complete Guide to Building and Growing a Talent Development Firm.

He can be reached at: 952-942-7291 or [email protected] or at his website:

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