The Death of Strategic Planning as an Event

Death to the Strategic Planning Event
September 1, 2022

Strategy planning is often approached in earnest as an event to develop an annual or 3-to-5-year plan.

Typical strategy planning looks like this: a team meets offsite to “work on the business” for a couple of days; then, everyone returns to the office with clear goals to execute the plan – maybe. The primary frustration reported by firms related to strategic planning is the lack of execution and implementation. The rapid pace of change today challenges the practicality of the event-based approach.

In an industry that reports 80% repeat work and has recently benefited from more work than employees to deliver that work, complacency coupled with demand may undermine strategy. What if, instead of treating strategy as an event, we integrated strategy into the culture, creating more of a journey? What would that look like, and how might that impact firm culture, skill building, and other firm attributes?

Event-Based Strategic Planning

The average strategic planning process begins with gathering financial data, client data, and other information related to how the firm is performing today. Key leaders take that information and host an external meeting where the main objective is to develop a vision for the future and distill prioritized initiatives to achieve that vision. Typical discussion topics focus on talent management, financial performance, and other functional issues that may be top of mind.

What about growth?

No good strategic workshop goes without discussing growth – more revenue, expanding into new market sectors, new locations, new services, increased cross-selling, or possibly an acquisition. In considering repeat clients, participants often ask how much the client plans to spend on what we do through the planning period. The final step is establishing objective goals and key metrics to measure results, and the plan is ready to deploy and execute.

What happens after the planning event?

Meeting leaders return to the office and share the plan with the rest of the staff, with varying levels of detail, and everyone is expected to do their part to make this vision of the future a reality. Unfortunately, what usually follows is everyone is drawn back into working in the business, tending to employee, client, project, and firm demands. At this point, most strategic plans fail or at least falter as they sit on the shelf and collect dust until the next planning meeting. When strategic planning is treated as an event, we tend to get to it when we can, time slips by, and execution is often limited.

An Alternative – Strategic Planning as a Journey

Contrast the typical strategy approach to leveraging the planning process to build on a culture of inclusion, ideation, and strategy development as a skillset – strategic planning as a journey.

At the Onset

The journey begins with engaging firm leaders and specific employees (maybe even clients) and asking for their feedback on what is working well or could be improved from their unique point of view. Hard data is collected and analyzed as well.

Financial data is the scorecard of a firm’s operational decisions and results, providing clues and insights into areas of potential focus and improvement. Whether executing planning as an event or a journey, the first step is to clearly understand where the firm is today, using qualitative and quantitative data.

Deeper Dive

Now is an opportune time to include, educate, and generate ideas with a broad spectrum of employees and leaders in your firm, further exploring identified areas of focus and improvement with a deeper dive. This type of pre-work allows everyone to have their voice heard and participate. How often has a project manager told you – “If I am not involved in setting the fee and the schedule, then I can’t be held accountable for either”? The same holds true for strategy – giving a wider and more diverse audience a voice on where the business is today and where it should be in the future sets the stage for buy-in.


The core work of a workshop, often offsite, is to distill the information previously gathered to develop critical initiatives for the firm in the coming years.

These initiatives can include business improvement needs, growth strategies, exploration of new opportunities, and more. Attendees of this workshop vary but tend to have key leaders at a minimum and, at best, the next generation of leaders since any decision made at this phase will impact their experience of the firm in the future.

Implementation and Integration

It takes a village, so to speak, to implement a strategy. Taking key initiatives back to the firm and creating tactical teams that have a passion or solid interest in those focus areas is crucial for continued buy-in and execution. Establishing project budgets that allow time to work on the business in achieving the objectives indicates that the firm is serious and committed to reaching their goals. Strategy isn’t urgent except in a crisis, so it tends to get pushed to the side. Elevating the importance of strategy in the day-to-day culture of the firm is essential. Culturally, staff must understand that the firm encourages them to spend time working on the business and expects that they will charge time to the strategic planning project.

Integrating strategy into firm culture can be as simple as including strategy as a topic in existing weekly team meetings and establishing monthly or quarterly update meetings. Or, it can be as extravagant as creating a strategy room, where meetings are held and information is prominently displayed and updated – all to keep the strategy objectives front and center.

The Journey Continues

The speed of change in the world today doesn’t allow for a plan to be static, it must be managed, and course corrections made as conditions demand. Often the first time an employee is asked to think about the business of architecture, engineering, or construction is when they become an associate or minority owner. Still, unless they’ve gone to business school or come by it naturally, they are not sure what is expected of them.

Introducing employees to strategy and guided thinking about the business earlier in their careers builds their business acumen alongside their technical and project acumen.

Looking to elevate your strategic planning beyond the typical event-based planning? Join Stambaugh Ness in our forthcoming webinar, Beyond the Strategic Planning Workshop.

Kate Allen, PE, MBA