The Difference Between Strategists and Strategic Planners

John Bell —  July 9, 2012

I’ve met both over my long career as an executive, a consultant, and a board member. Strategists and Strategic Planners may read the same periodicals and have similar destinations in mind, but there is a difference between the two. Strategic Planners, at the outset, are disadvantaged by the definition of their role. They are staffers, not line managers. Strategic Planning positions exist inside companies, and in external consulting businesses. Consultants earn a living by the clock. The ramification of this incentive is easy to deduce. They spend weeks, sometimes months assessing, discussing, assembling teams, leading SWAT analyses, and on, and on, and on. Internal Strategic Planning managers do the same thing . . . in some cases, less. Less? Yep, they bring in consultants to do their job.

Rather than break new ground, the finished plan is usually a convoluted extension of the current strategy. Crown Corporations and government agencies are the worst offenders. British Columbia Lottery Corporation, ICBC, and BC Hydro’s most recent strategic plans all exceed 30 pages. Take a peak; their well-crafted documents are posted as “Service Plans” on-line, and they differ little from prior versions. Strategic Planners are the architects of these documents. They are not brilliant strategists; they are brilliant bureaucrats.

An organization’s best strategists are in the C-Suite, and the CEO is usually the catalyst. C-Suite strategists can draft an effective Strategic Plan within a day because they have an intimate knowledge of the business and are constantly thinking strategically. The best ones bring clarity and purpose to a document that can be written on just one piece of paper.

Here are the key differences between the species:

  1. Strategists are obsessed with bolstering their company’s competitive advantage. Strategic Planners are obsessed with preparing a document.
  2. Strategists trash complexity so that plans are clear and transparent. Strategic Planners build plans to pre-defined formats. In the case of BC Crown Agencies, the government format demands verbosity.
  3. Strategists motivate employees to invest time and energy in the stated strategic direction. Strategic Planners collaborate with management to uncover strategic direction.
  4. Strategists take an enterprise to the next level. Strategic Planners never transform an enterprise.

In the final analysis, companies with a C-Suite that drives strategy are action-oriented, less bureaucratic, and better-performing. I’ll leave you with one question. Why don’t giant innovators like Apple, Google or Facebook have Strategic Planning Departments?

John Bell is a strategy consultant and former CEO of Jacobs Suchard (Kraft, Nabob). He is a contributor to Fortune magazine and a regular blogger at CEO Afterlife.
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John Bell

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John Bell is a strategy consultant and former CEO of Jacobs Suchard (Kraft, Nabob). He is a contributor to Fortune magazine and a regular blogger at CEO Afterlife.

5 responses to The Difference Between Strategists and Strategic Planners

  1. Amen John! I’ve been vocal on this site about strategic planning, and I love how you compared/contrasted SPs and Strategists

    I met with an Executive a few weeks ago and he told me an interesting strategy he had to make their plans work. He would take his plans home to his kids and have them read them. If they couldn’t understand or explain it back to him ,he ripped it up and made his team redo it. They learned pretty quickly that their plans had to be succinct, readable and generally a page long (and the success of his company defends his actions).

  2. As critical as business planning is to the success of any company, all plans are useless unless followed by action. The difference between strategists and strategic planners may be pronounced, but their combined actions define the rudiments of achieving significant results. Great thoughts, John!

  3. John, in my view, strategists usually provoke change or kaizen while strategic planners produce a document. Thanks for a valuable insight and contrast.

  4. John,
    Thank you for clearly drawing a line between strategists and strategic planners. Now its clear most the academic administrators are doing better job as the strategic planners instead strategists.
    nachiar

  5. John.
    Thank you for distinguishing between strategists and strategic planners. Most of the Academic administrators in India are good strategic planners instead off strategists.
    Dr.Nachiar