Informal Strategic Planning

The nexus of strategic planning rests in the idea that 1) given a set of known circumstances an organization can 2) engage in certain deliberate actions which will 3) lead to a more desirable outcome than if it had done nothing at all.

In large organizations, formal strategic planning probably involves extensive data analyses, brain trusts, elaborate retreats – you name it – during which the organization generates key milestones and metrics to measure progress over the next umpteen years.

Formal strategic planning has its place.

The process allows for input from various stakeholders thereby creating buy-in from the outset. This exercise is valuable assuming that the organization is in a place to dedicate extensive resources to the process and that the environment is stable enough to make accurate predictions about the future.

Dilbert sums this up nicely.

But what happens if/when the organization finds itself facing an uncertain future?

One of the most valuable activities I have completed when faced with a hazy tomorrow involves informal strategic planning (not a technical term – so if there is one, please let me know). As a leader in a smaller program – or even a semi-autonomous team – there is merit in sitting down to physically map out the future and its various permutations when things are rough.

Here are the steps:

  1. Set aside about 45 minutes when you won’t be interrupted
  2. Get out several sheets of blank paper (or your leadership journal)
  3. Draw a timeline across the paper
  4. Write in where the program/organization has been and key milestones up until the present
  5. Write in possible future developments

For the last point, you can frame future goals/milestones using parameters that assume different variables (e.g., access to development resources, new product launches, bringing in new talent, strategic partnerships, etc.).

As a revenue generating organization, one of my projections looked at the percentage of revenue from various activities and how that could/would shift over time. For example, in the present moment online programs were 5% of total revenue. In the future I projected that amount could grow to 25% over the next 5 years. That growth was accompanied by training of our in-house faculty concurrent with the launch of several new online offerings.

This process of informal strategic planning was one of self-reflection. Why?


Looking at the big picture, to include past milestones, current status, and future options allows you as an individual/leader to appreciate the temporal nature of the current challenges and ways ahead. This is aligned with the research that identifies the ability to frame setbacks as being temporary (in the grand scheme of things) as a core element of resiliency.

A closed-door process also allows you to think long-range using all available information in an uncensored forum – a crucial point, especially if team members are concerned about their ongoing projects or even livelihoods.

Of course, what comes next after this exercise depends on context.

Perhaps present the alternatives to the go-forward team. Perhaps set them aside to be revisited in time.