Is Planning Giving You the Creeps?

Scope CreepThis afternoon at the annual meeting of the American Alliance of Museums in Seattle, Washington, I’ll be part of “Strategic Planning Made Simple,” a panel session discussing approaches to designing and implementing strategic plans with Liz Maurer (National Women’s Museum), Laurie Baty (National Capital Radio and Television Museum), and Steve Shwarzman (Institute of Library and Museum Services).  I’ll be highlighting four ways to overcome “planning creep,” the seemingly inevitable and invisible force that pulls you away from your goals:

1.  Adopting a Meaningful Purpose and Vision.  Strategic plans have been with us for nearly a century, first for military purposes and then adopted by businesses in the 1970s.  It’s now pretty clear that planning without a purpose is a wasted effort and now you’ll find both businesses and non-profit organizations adopting “mission statements.”  While mission statements are needed, not all mission statements are helpful.  I’ll be outlining the six elements of a good mission statement based on twenty years of research.

2.  Choosing Only a Handful of Priorities.  A recent study in the Harvard Business Review showed that revenue growth is inversely related to company-wide priorities–the fewer the priorities, the greater the growth.  Indeed, if a company had more than 11 priorities, it was as productive as one without any priorities.  Focusing on a handful of priorities is the key, but choosing them is difficult as well. I’ll discuss Jim Collins’ “hedgehog concept” and Boston Consulting Group’s “double-bottom line matrix” as useful tools to finding the right priorities.

3.  Scaling Your Plans to Your Capacity.  Organizations grow and die much like individuals, and likewise, plans needs to be scaled to the capacity of the organization.  From my observations, young organizations tend to be overly ambitious (“we should be a world heritage site”) and declining organizations tend to be far too cautious (“if it worked last year, let’s do it again this year”).  Ichak Azides’ framework for corporate lifecycles can help identify your current status and figure out what needs to happen to move to the next level.

4.  Treating Planning as a Process, not a Product.   Jim Collins, Randi Korn, and others promote the idea that planning is part of a larger process that includes acting, evaluating, and reflecting.  When this cycle is fully activated, it builds momentum in an organization that propels it forward, slowly at first and then faster as it becomes increasingly successful.

You’re welcome to review my presentation (although these things never seem to make sense without the commentary) but more useful might be the following books and articles that have most influenced me:

  • Corporate Lifecycles: How and Why Corporations Grow and Die and What to Do About it by Ichak Adizes (1988).
  • Good to Great and the Social Sectors by Jim Collins (2005).
  • Museum Strategy and Marketing: Designing Missions, Building Audiences, Generating Revenue and Resources by Neil Kotler and Philip Kotler (1998).
  • Running Lean: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan that Works by Ash Maurya (2012).
  • Starting Right: A Basic Guide to Museum Planning, Third Edition by Gerald George (2012).
  • Strategic Planning for Nonprofit Organizations, Second Edition by Michael Allison and Jude Kaye (2005).
  • Strategy Safari, Second Edition by Henry Mintzberg et al (2009).
  • The Case for Holistic Intentionality” by Randi Korn (Curator, April 2007)
  • The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization by Peter Drucker (2008).
  • The One Page Business Plan for Non-Profit Organizations by Jim Horan (2007).


2 thoughts on “Is Planning Giving You the Creeps?

  1. Randi Korn

    I have seen many folks cringe at the mere mention of strategic planning, so clearly something new has to be done with the age-old approach. I am grateful that you and others are writing about it. Good post, Max.

    Randi Korn


  2. Max van Balgooy Post author

    At the AAM session, we had a good discussion including whether to do planning yourself or with outside help. Planning, like surgery, is something you can do by yourself if necessary but the results are usually better if you already have the skills or know someone who does. My recommendation is to have the planning process managed and facilitated by an experienced, outside, neutral third-party if at all possible. A facilitator allows you to actively participate in the planning meetings–if you’re both facilitating the meeting and making the decisions, it’s easy for others to accuse you of being unfair or self-serving . Secondly, an experienced facilitator can tackle the tough issues that you can’t and question assumptions to refine your thinking in new ways. You should be able to obtain recommendations for facilitators from your museum association or colleagues. You usually obtain a better result when a facilitator can manage the entire process, but you can use facilitators for the most difficult or complex issues, such as establishing the mission and vision.

    For a process, you can follow the “classic” in-depth approach in the Allison and Kaye book or use the worksheets in Horan. If you need to establish a good foundation before launching into planning, Drucker’s five questions are a good place to start.


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