The End of Long Term Planning?

The end of long term planning

Has the pace of change accelerated to the point that long term planning is no longer valuable?  When I started working in the strategy field, most strategic planning horizons spanned three to five years.  In our world today, it’s pretty difficult to look out beyond 18 months with any certainty.  The last 18 months have been a case in point.  The pandemic has turned our world upside down.  Climate change is wreaking havoc with unprecedented weather events.  Our political environment has become polarized with dramatic policy changes occurring.  The list goes on.

The software industry has abandoned long term planning

I was discussing a strategic planning engagement with the CEO of a software company recently.  He told me that traditional long term planning was abandoned a while ago in the software industry.  I was reminded of one of my least successful outcomes when I was in an enterprise software development role.  We used a development methodology called waterfall.  The idea was to design and develop the whole solution serially in stages.  Once it was complete, we deployed the whole solution in one go.  It was a logical and efficient approach but there was a significant limitation.  Once the user requirements had been gathered, it took about two years to design, develop and deploy the solution.

When it was time to go live, everyone was excited.  That is until the users experienced the solution and quickly figured out it didn’t meet their needs.  So much had changed during the development cycle that the solution no longer met their needs.  This led to frustrated conversations about why the users asked for these features when they didn’t need them.  It wasn’t their fault, the pace of change made these requirements obsolete.

The advent of agile planning

The software industry has shifted to an iterative development approach called Agile. User needs are delivered in a piecemeal manner. This greatly reduces the elapsed time between gathering a requirement and delivering it. What used to take several years to deliver is now delivered in a matter of weeks. Not surprisingly, user and developer satisfaction is now much higher.

The future of strategic planning

You may wonder why I share this example.  The same change is now happening to strategic planning.  It makes no sense to create a strategic plan covering the next three to five years.  By the time we get there, so much will have changed rendering it useless.  We are now moving to an agile strategic planning process that covers the next 18-24 months.  We also review and update the strategic plan every quarter as needed.  This approach matches the accelerating pace of change and the need to take action, learn and then adjust.

This approach is not only much more well suited to the accelerating pace of change.  It also significantly reduces the time spent planning, eliminating unnecessary analysis and scenario planning.  Following this agile planning approach, we create a strategic plan over the course of two half-day sessions.  A strategic planning cycle used to take weeks and months to complete.

How long does your strategic planning process take and how useful have the outcomes been?  Is it time to try a radically new approach?

Comments (2)

I wonder if it depends on what it is we are strategically planning for. Yes, if you are planning for physical technology then short horizons. But growth in social tech, how we humans work together, collaborate and collectively adjust, is relatively (to physical tech) flat. So longer horizons there. Or maybe we don’t even strategically plan for that? I’m questioning reality of strategically planning for social change rather than suggesting we don’t.

Hi Dave, That’s a good point and I agree with you. The time horizon does depend on what you are planning. For most things, the pace of change has accelerated and it probably has for human interaction, and perhaps that horizon is still relatively long.

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