Strategic Planning, R.I.P.
enry Mintzberg has killed strategic planning.
It’s not that the prolific McGill University professor has anything new to say in his justreleased book, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning. And it’s not as if our mindless love affair
with planning in the 1960s and 1970s didn’t effectively end a dozen years ago (when then-neophyte GE chairman Jack
Welch killed his corporation’s hyper-formalized planning
system, and most of the planners along with it). It’s just that this academic yet sprightly text is, well, so encyclopedic, so damning ... and so final. It puts the last nails in the coffin; it closes, decisively, a major chapter of the American management saga. The dead horse need not be beaten again. My own reading of the book consumed (correct word) a
plane trip to London, a full night in New Delhi, then two
more dusk-to-dawn stints in Dubai. The catharsis was profound. From time to time I’d even find myself sweating, despite a chill air conditioning which kept me under blankets. “So far so bad,” proclaimed the renowned political scientist Aaron Wildavsky, in 1973, of the elaborate planning processes introduced into the public sector by Robert (bodycount Bob) McNamara when he was U.S. Secretary of Defense.
Others went farther. “A good deal of corporate planning ... is like a ritual rain dance,” wrote Dartmouth’s Brian Quinn. “It has no effect on the weather that follows, but those who engage in it think it does. ... Moreover, much of the advice related to corporate planning is directed at improving the
dancing, not the weather.” Columbia’s Len Sayles chimed in, “Apparently our society, not unlike the Greeks with their
Delphic oracles, takes great comfort in believing that very
talented ‘seers’ removed from the hurly-burly world of reality can foretell coming events.” Two other observers, M.L. Gimpl and S.R. Dakin, added, “Management’s enchantment with
the magic of long-range planning ... is a manifestation of
anxiety relieving superstitious behavior.”
Mintzberg hardly limits himself to such gratuitous, if
deadly accurate, barbs. In chapter after chapter of systematic research reviews he meticulously builds his case. For instance there’s the French academic, upon a thorough consideration of planning effectiveness in 1978, who succinctly concludes, “Those who say they make plans and that these work are
liars. The term planning is imbecilic; everything can change tomorrow.”
But Igor Ansoff was not so easily deterred. The oft-quoted
champion of planning in the 1960s (and producer of some of
Source: The Pursuit of WOW! © 1994 TPG Communications. All rights reserved.
the most elaborate — and ludicrous, in hindsight — planning schemes of all time) apparently destroys his own position. “Recently I asked three corporate executives,” he wrote in 1970, “what decisions they had made in the last year that would not have been made were it not for their corporate
plans. All had difficulty identifying one such decision. Since all of the plans are marked ‘secret’ or ‘confidential,’ I asked them how their competitors might benefit from possession
of their plans. Each answered
with embarrassment that the
“A good deal of
competitors would not benefit.” Did Ansoff respond to
such withering attacks by
... is like a ritual
questioning the validity of
strategic planning? Hardly.
rain dance, it has
Instead, he went on, in a landmark textbook gobbled up by
no effect on the
practitioners, to further elaboweather that
rate his already tedious
follows, but those
But, Mintzberg observes,
who engage in it
it’s not just that planning
doesn’t work. It’s downright
think it does.”
dangerous. One hundred years
—Brian Quinn, Dartmouth
ago an early champion of
planning, Henri Fayol, admitted as much. Planning schemes, he said, not only don’t encourage flexibility (the only sane response to changing
times), but actually...