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Strategy is Not Planning, New Thinking for Destinations

Issue # 16 (955 Words/4 Minutes)


Strategy is Not Planning

“The real heart of strategy is in the mind of the strategist.”

Max McKeown


I first came upon the concept of strategic planning as a graduate business student. I had taken a class in strategic planning, which was new and all the rage at the time. It looked good in the textbook, and there were already planning models and tools that had emerged from consulting firms like Bain and McKinsey. But my professor, one of the best I ever had, was not convinced. He had a rare background as a Green Beret with degrees from Harvard and the London School of Economics. My professor was doubtful about strategic planning, to say the least; he always reminded me that plans rarely work out; I think he knew that from his days as a Green Beret in Vietnam.

His words always stuck with me. More importantly, his lessons took me on a 30-year journey to study and understand strategy. During that time and many consulting engagements later, I learned that strategy and strategic planning were different and not even close, though the names may lead one to believe they are.

Over the years, I have read many books and sat through many lectures and discussions with colleagues on the topic of strategy. I have been deeply influenced by several strategy writers that have shaped my understanding of the difference between strategy and how it differs from planning. I have also seen many tourism strategic plans, launched with high hopes, wind up on a shelf or fail to deliver the intended results. I have come to believe that many DMO executives and consultants, for that matter, may miss the crucial, nuanced difference between strategy and planning.


I recently came upon a Harvard Business Review Video in which University of Toronto Professor Roger Martin articulates the differences between the two concepts.


Strategic planning is characterized by tasks and activities the organization says it's going to do. You know the process. Define the goal, implement the action steps, and measure the results. For example: develop a new website, start a new sales program, develop a new ad campaign, or implement a new research program.


The results of these kinds of programs don't have strategy driving them. They are just tasks to be

implemented. In contrast, strategy is characterized by an integrated set of choices that positions your organization on a playfield of your choice to win. Strategy seeks to change the playfield to your advantage.

- A strategy has a theory about why your organization should be on a specific playing field.

- A strategy has a narrative that tells you how you will be better than the competition.

- The strategy theory must be coherent, doable, and translatable to action.


Why do executives like strategic planning? For one thing, it is familiar. Strategic planning has more to do with your organization's resources and how they are spent. So strategic planning often leads to a list of new expenditures, not a strategy to win on the competitive playing field. Strategic planning is familiar and comfortable because:

- It focuses on the cost side

- You control the costs

- You are your won customer. You are spending resources for your programs

- You determine the level of investment


Because planning is more comfortable, organizations often default to it. Strategy has a very different look and feel.

• Strategy focuses on the outcomes you wish to achieve.

• Actual customers are your customers and not your organizations departments needs

• You don't control customers, and you don't control revenues

From a strategy perspective, you are saying, "Here is what we believe will happen, but we can't prove it in advance." From a CEO's perspective, it