From Strategic Planning to Strategic Thinking
by James L. Morrison

[Note: This is a re-formatted manuscript that was originally published in On the Horizon, 1994, 2(3), 3-4. It is posted here with permission from Jossey Bass Publishers.]

Ian Wilson in the lead article argues convincingly that in this period of rapid change we should shift from strategic planning to strategic thinking and strategic management. Henry Mintzberg (1994), in an article appearing in the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review titled "The Fall and Rise of Strategic Planning," states that the label strategic planning should be dropped because strategic planning has impeded strategic thinking.

Mintzberg's argument is as follows: strategic planning is about analysis (i.e., breaking down a goal into steps, designing how the steps may be implemented, and estimating the anticipated consequences of each step). Strategic thinking is about synthesis, about using intuition and creativity to formulate an integrated perspective, a vision, of where the organization should be heading. The problem is that strategic planning proponents believe that analysis encompasses synthesis; that in the best practice, strategic planning, strategic thinking, and strategy making are synonymous. This belief, in turn, rests on the assumptions that prediction is possible and that the strategy-making process can be formalized.

Mintzberg argues, and Wilson would probably agree, that predicting seasons of the year is simple, but predicting discontinuities, such as a technological innovation, is difficult, if not impossible. Moreover, Mintzberg maintains, formalizing a strategy implies a sequence from analysis through procedure to action. Certainly we do think in order to act; but also we sometimes act in order to think. We experiment; those experiments that work converge into patterns that become strategies. To Mintzberg, the essence of strategy making is the process of learning as we act. Formal systems can never internalize, comprehend, or synthesize hard information. Thus planning can not "learn." Mintzberg says, "Strategies can develop inadvertently, without the conscious intention of senior management, often through a process of learning. . . . Learning inevitably plays a, if not the, crucial role in the development of novel strategies (p. 111)."

Mintzberg sees strategic planning as practiced, as strategic programming—articulating and elaborating strategies that already exist. When managers comprehend the difference between planning and strategic thinking, it is possible to return to what the strategy-making process should be: "capturing what the manager learns from all sources (both the soft insights from his or her personal experiences and the experiences of others throughout the organization and the hard data from market research and the like) and then synthesizing that learning into a vision of the direction that the business should pursue (p. 107)."

Mintzberg does not mean get rid of the planners. Instead, those with planning responsibilities should make their contribution around the strategy-making process rather than inside it. Planners should supply the data that strategic thinking requires, should act as catalysts who support strategy-making by aiding and encouraging managers to think strategically, and should help specify the implementation steps needed to carry out the strategic vision.

Mintzberg distinguishes between planners and managers. Planners do not have authority to make commitments, nor do they have managers' access to that "soft" information critical to strategy making. Managers are under time pressure to make decisions, to act, not reflect; they may overlook important analytical information. Planners have the time and the inclination to analyze. Their role should be to pose the right questions rather than to find the right answers, opening complex issues for thoughtful consideration. Planners should function as strategy finders, analysts, and catalysts. Planners should encourage managers to think about the future in creative ways, to question conventional wisdom, to raise difficult questions, to challenge conventional assumptions, and to help themselves out of conceptual ruts. Mintzberg cites Arie de Geus (1988), onetime head of planning at Royal Dutch Shell, in a classic article titled "Planning as Learning," as arguing that the real purpose of planning is to change the mental models that decision makers carry in their heads.

What are the implications of the Wilson and Mintzberg arguments for college and university leaders? First, presidents, chancellors, provosts, and deans should focus on strategic thinking and strategic management, on developing a shared vision for their school. Their colleagues with "planning" either in their title or in their assigned responsibilities should function in the role of planners as described by Mintzberg. They should not be told, "Draft the plan." Such commandments usually result in another document for the archives.

There are a number of tools available to planners to assist them in helping senior administrators think strategically. Ian Wilson points to visioning and scenarios. Perhaps Ian will present a seminar through the UNC Institute for Academic and Professional Leadership on these topics.

On the Horizon itself can serve as a tool. Our editorial board is charged with identifying signals of change in specific sectors of the macroenvironment (social, technological, economic, environmental, and political) and suggesting their implications for higher education. Our lead articles focus more broadly on what is on the horizon that can affect colleges and universities, as do our pieces in Commentary. The Situation Room focuses on emerging issues and on issues management techniques. We have begun a new section in this issue: The Internet. In the next issue, we will began another section: Methods and Techniques. In the April issue for example, Mark Champion and James Rieley will describe their experience with environmental scanning and with Hoshin planning respectively as two approaches to effective planning.

If you wish to contribute an article, please send me a 800-1200 word manuscript for our review. As always we welcome your comments and suggestions as to how we can make On the Horizon more useful to you.


Mintzberg, H. (1994, January-February). The fall and rise of strategic planning. Harvard Business Review, 107-114.

DeGeus, A. P. (1988, March/April). Planning as learning. Harvard Business Review, 70-74.

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