#33 from R&D Innovator Volume 2, Number 4          April 1993

Strategic Planning—Why Not?
by George L. Morrisey

Mr. Morrisey is a management consultant with the The Morrisey Group, Merritt Island, Florida.  He is author of several books including Creating Your Future: Personal Strategic Planning for Professionals (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 1992), from which this article is adapted.

Many scientists and technologists don't like the notion of planning for their personal future.  I can appreciate that they don't feel they have the time, or they think everything is changing too fast to warrant the effort.  Some people are so successful right now that there's "no need to plan;" others are in crisis and can't take the time to think long-term.

Each of these arguments has some merit, but when you look at the benefits of establishing a personal strategic plan, you might change your mind.  Strategic planning is a long-range effort to determine where you are going.  Do you see yourself moving into non-technical areas in the company?  Do you want to remain in your organization until retirement?  Do you hope someday to be an independent consultant?

Remember that planning is a process—and good plans are a means to an end, never an end in themselves.  If you can keep your focus on where the plan is leading, you will find this approach opening up vistas of development and increasing your present and future satisfaction in life.

And the Benefits Are…

What, exactly, can planning do for you?  It can offer you a personal vision for the future, guide your career, enable you to grasp opportunities, build a balanced life, involve others in your decisions, and help you prepare for retirement.  Let's discuss these topics in order.

A personal vision of the future is really what personal planning is all about.  It's too easy to get wrapped up in the present and lose sight of what the future should be like.  If we intend to grow in any important part of our lives, we must sometimes focus on how we want our future to look.  

Depending on where you are in your career and your life, you may need to look as little as two years into the future, or as many as 30.  The ironic thing about focusing on the future is that what you project is unlikely to happen.  Your circumstances, opportunities, threats, and preferences may take you in an entirely different direction.  But this does not make the planning process any less vital:  A focus on the future helps us determine when we'll need to change direction.

Even in a fast-changing world, planning helps guide a career, particularly in the early stages.  Curiously, only a small fraction of professionals end up in the career for which they initially prepared.  Yet as our interests, opportunities, and family obligations all affect our direction, a continual focus on the future gives us a better chance of identifying roadblocks that could interfere with getting to our destination.  Planning helps us select among options:  "What-if" games show new vistas that might otherwise never occur to us.  For example, what if the company decides to stop research in your field?  Planning will not prevent every stumble along the way, but it will increase the likelihood that we'll respond to events more effectively.

Planning also helps build a balanced life—it can prevent tunnel vision.  Even if a narrow focus on the requirements of work is occasionally justified, there's more to life than just getting ahead in your career.  What if you are offered a great job, but your spouse doesn't want to live in that area?  A balanced life includes family, friends, health, and personal fulfillment.  It also includes spiritual development, financial security, and service to others.  I don't think attending to these "non-career" issues detracts from a professional focus.  On the contrary, our lives need a holistic balance for us to function optimally. 

Once we achieve a true synergy, then we can be even more productive on the job—and off.

No Plan Is an Island

Planning also enables us to involve others in our decisions.  Life partners, siblings, parents and children, colleagues, employers and friends all have a stake in our success and most have a genuine concern about our future well-being.  Since many of our accomplishments depend to some extent on the efforts of these other people, it's more sensible and productive to get them involved early in the process, when they can add to the rationality and effectiveness of our plans.  For example, let management know the kind of position you are aiming for.

Finally, planning prepares us for retirement.  Many scientists resist the notion of total retirement—preferring to continue working in some fashion as long as their faculties permit.  Even though their efforts may change intensity and focus, they still want to retain the challenge they get from work.  For these people, as well as for those who look forward to leaving research entirely, the best way to get where you want to go is to plan to get there, rather than to trust fate. 

So Why Not?

If planning offers so many tangible benefits, why do many professionals resist it?  Some are more comfortable with acting, rather than "idle thinking," and therefore don't want to devote so much time to it, or they think their circumstances are so likely to change that planning is futile.  Other people complain that things are going so well (or so badly) that there's no point in planning.  Finally, some people don't make strategic plans because they can't recognize the difference between strategic and short-term, operational planning—how to get where you've already decided to go. 

Circumstances do change, and it's certainly legitimate to wonder about the value of planning when things are changing so rapidly.  But the plans we are talking about are not set in concrete.  They are adaptable frameworks, goals, that can conform to changing circumstances.  There's nothing wrong with changing direction, if we know what we're doing and understand our own reasoning.  A plan gives us a foundation from which we can make appropriate digressions as needed. 

Why plan if things are going fine?  Won't they continue like this?  Won't the skills we now use always be in demand?  Probably not—especially in science and technology.  Being prepared for new situations is a cardinal reason for having a strategic plan in the first place.  Even if we cannot anticipate everything that will affect our path, we have a better chance of dealing with it effectively if we've thought ahead.

Things are going terribly, and I can't bother planning because survival is the name of the game right now.  Good reasoning.  If it seems that it's going to be a close call just to reach that contracted goal, don't worry about initiating a new overall strategy.  But most of us often think things are worse than they truly are.  If you are continually moving from one crisis to another, you may need to take some time off to understand why.  Are you really heading where you want to go?  Is your personal style suited to your circumstances?   What changes in direction could prevent some of these crises in the first place?

So, spend some time thinking about your future, outline your plans, and discuss them with people close to you.  Strategic planning takes work, but it pays off.  It's an exciting way to create the future rather than just coast into it.

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