What is Strategic Planning?

A simple enough question to answer – right? However, whenever you ask it you invariably get a wide range of answers.

Before any organization embarks on a strategic planning exercise, the best advice is to be clear about what you are doing through strategic planning, what it will (and won’t) include, and why you are doing it. Clarifying the answers to the basic question “what is strategic planning?” before you even begin the process will give you and your people a critical touchstone everyone can go back to as strategic planning unfolds in your organization.

Ok, so what is strategic planning?

This is the best answer I have found and the one I share with my clients every time I help them with their strategic planning activities:

Strategic Planning is a continuous and systematic process where people make decisions about intended future outcomes, how outcomes are to be accomplished, and how success is measured and evaluated.

Let’s take a closer look at the key components of this definition/description.

“…continuous…”It is very important to realize that strategic planning is an ongoing activity. That is, it does not end with the publication of a plan or document. In fact, the success of your strategic plan depends on it purposefully becoming an uninterrupted and never-ending cycle. Basically, you need to live your strategic plan everyday and evolve it as required.

“…systematic…”Any effective strategic planning process has a deliberate and specific methodology and a natural yet defined sequence of events. A successful process that produces the desired outcomes is never haphazard.

“…process…”The value of strategic planning lies more in the journey than the destination. While strategic planning must indeed produce a product (traditionally a strategic plan document), the primary value comes from the teamwork, vision, and the commitment to and ownership of organizational success that the people involved in strategic planning gain through the process of making strategic decisions TOGETHER.

“…people…” A strategic planning process must involve a broad variety/cross-functional, multi-leveled group of people (including your stakeholders), and those people must be ready and willing to contribute to the process in a meaningful way.

“…decisions…” Strategic planning is, at its core, a decision making process. Organizations that feel that they are ready to plan strategically must have leaders who are prepared to make decisions if they are to be successful.

“…outcomes…” Strategic planning addresses external results or, in other words, the organization’s impact on the outside world – particularly how it affects its stakeholders/customers. An old adage states: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” Strategic planning is primarily about defining where “there” is and it paints a clear picture of the outcomes and results the organization plans to achieve throughout through its work.

“…how outcomes are to be accomplished…” Leaders and great strategic plans don’t stop at defining the future the organization intends to achieve. In fact, through their strategic planning efforts, successful organizations go ahead and select and describe the roadmap (processes/projects/services/programs) that will get them there.

“…how success is measured and evaluated.” Strategic planning is all about succeeding and achieving/delivering specific results. A well-written strategic plan will describe clearly how anyone can tell whether the organization is successful and how they will know it. To do this, the plan defines and measures intended future performance results (either quantitatively or qualitatively), including threshold criteria for achieving success.

By completing strategic planning in a way that aligns with this definition, an organization will produce a strategic plan that effectively answers the four key questions every strategic plan should answer. They include:

1. Who are we?

Including: What is our reason for being? What do we believe in and value? What needs do we exist to meet? What is our unique stakeholder value proposition (the big promise we make to our stakeholders)? What “business” are we in? How do we create and deliver value to our stakeholders/customers?

2. Where are we going?

Including: How will our organization, our stakeholders/customers, and/or society as a whole be different as we progress along the road to accomplishing our reason for being? What will this future look like? How will we know when we are there? What will we measure and what results will we achieve?

3. How we will get from here/today to where we are going?

Including: Where are we starting from and what does the roadmap to the future look like? What critical activities will we put our resources behind and how will this move us forward to the future? 

4. How will we know that we are moving in the right direction/have been successful?

Including: What measures will we use to monitor and manage the successful execution of our strategy?

A great strategic planning process displays the attributes outlined in the description and successfully answers the four key questions listed above. With the answers to these questions in hand, your organization will be well positioned to realize the benefits associated with strategic planning including:

– Thinking more long-term

– Providing a framework and clarify future direction

– Managing diverse stakeholder needs

– Developing a rational basis for decision making

– Addressing major issues and solving organizational problems

– Dealing effectively and rapidly with changing circumstances

– Fostering teamwork among stakeholders and employees

– Creating uniform vision shared among stakeholders

– Increasing levels of organizational commitment

– Setting priorities

– Creating a strategy-focused organization and a high performance culture

So – in YOUR organization, what is strategic planning?

Remember: a clear and unified answer is critical to your long-term success.


To see descriptions of more terms usually used in relation to strategic planning and strategy execution, just click here.


  1. Phil
    May 25, 2011

    Age old question indeed, another great post Sandy! I like the series of questions and reference to “attibutes”. I think this gets the emphasis off the technical components of a strat map and scorecard which is intimidating for less experienced organizations, but gets at the elements that are required for completing the work.

  2. Sandy Richardson
    May 25, 2011

    Thanks Phil! Sandy

  3. trucking dispatch
    Jul 22, 2011

    We have to do the planning by strategy. If we make planning just for making then it is worth. So make planning which is going to useful for us in the future.

  4. Jen McCleve
    Oct 19, 2011

    I think that is is a great definition of what strategic planning is and how it works. Thanks for the tips and ideas. Great work on the article.

  5. Sandy Richardson
    Oct 20, 2011

    Thanks Jen – glad you found it helpful! Sandy

  6. Richard Rowe
    Jan 21, 2012

    Excellent post, Sandy and I will certainly “borrow” your definition.
    However, I would also add that effective implementation of the strategic plan (irrespective of the success of the strategy) is a function of the extent to which it is understood throughout the organisation. Therefore communication of the strategic plan, and the contribution that everybody makes to it, must be part of the strategic planning process itself.

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    Aug 12, 2012

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