Strategic Planning: Left-Brain or Right-Brain - Rethinking it

William (Chuck) E. Henley, P.E.
Branch Manager
Stantec Consulting Services Inc.
Richmond, Virginia

Strategy is a human abstraction that is as old as humankind. Strategic planning is a formal way to make or formulate strategy and is a modern phenomenon. It was developed by corporate planners in the 1960s and quickly became a popular method for strategy formulation by for-profit corporations.(1) The methodology was introduced and adapted by nonprofit and government organizations in the 1980s.(2)

Strategic planning is a process to propose and reach agreement about the best way for an organization to respond to current and anticipated circumstances. There are a variety of planning models and techniques to accomplish this, including goals-based, issues-based, organic (articulating vision and values) and strategic scenarios. The basic steps include situational analysis, direction setting and action planning. A plan is a product of this process.

Strategic plans can be confused with business plans and operational plans. The focus of attention of strategic plans is usually on the entire enterprise while business plans focus on a particular market, service or program. Operational plans are usually thought of more as extensions of strategic plans although the distinction is largely a matter of detail and time frame.

While strategic planning is practiced in all types of organizations, lately some leading management theorists and practitioners have questioned its relevance and value. Some have come to consider strategic planning (the process and plan) as getting in the way of strategic thinking and acting. In its defense, strategic planning was never intended to be an end in itself. Rather, it is a worthwhile effort only if it helps key decision makers think and act strategically.(3) Strategic thinking and acting has everything to do with how humans think and interact in general. Therefore, it is inevitable that private and public sector organizations will find new ways to plan strategically.

Origins of Strategy
Strategy, as a matter of human concern and consequently a field of human inquiry, dates back to the very beginnings of recorded civilization. Throughout human history, strategy and strategy-making (strategic planning is a particular approach to strategy formulation) have been conceptualized and applied in such diverse fields as military history, public policy and business.(4)

Ancient classics on strategy approach the concept more as an art than a science.(5) The earliest Oriental texts on strategy personify the development of the strategist as a leader who will have to face the challenges of decision-making and leadership under extreme and ambiguous situations.(6) The Oriental strategist's main interest is the intuitive nature of human behavior and interactions rather than the clear definition of issues and goals, a task that demands focus and clarity. Dealing with risk and uncertainty requires the ancient strategist to master the use of the sixth sense to reach a particular state of mind rather than a set of structured objectives, rules or scenarios.

Beginning in the 18th century with the development of military science and later the introduction of operations analysis and computer technology, strategy thinking and strategy-making became to be thought more of as science than art. Using the scientific approach, strategy is something that can be thoroughly analyzed, even modeled through the manipulation of a large number of variables. Consequently, strategic thinking and strategy formulation have to a large degree become synonymous with strictly rational decision-making and the conscious selection of the best course of action given a certain set of circumstances. This is the reason most people, when asked to define the word "strategy," probably would answer "a plan." Multiple definitions have been conceived, however. Strategy has also been defined as pattern, position or perspective in addition to a plan.(7)

Left-Brain vs. Right-Brain
A fundamental divide exists in schools of strategic thinking. The issue is whether the process of strategy formulation is or should be analytical and rational or intuitive and synthetic. The theory of the structure and functions of the mind suggests that the two different sides of the brain control two different "modes" of thinking. The Left-Brain is associated with analytical and rational thought; that which is logical, sequential and objective. It looks at parts instead of the whole. The Right-Brain is associated with the intuitive and synthetic; that which is random, holistic and subjective. It looks at the whole instead of the parts.

Our modern-day approach to strategic thinking and acting is typically Left-Brain while our ancestors' approach is Right-Brain. Unsurprisingly, proponents of formal planning consider strategy formulation above all as rigorous analytical information processing. Critics of this approach argue for the need for inclusive decision-making and the use of intuition and other "soft" skills to process complex information.

In the 1990s, some management theorists and scholars began questioning the relevance and value of strategic planning. One of the more vocal critics was (and still is) Henry Mintzberg, Professor of Management at Montreal University and former President of the Strategic Management Society. Professor Mintzberg has written extensively on management and strategy since the 1970s.(8)

In 1994 he wrote a book about the rise and fall of strategic planning in which he described what he believes what went wrong with it and what managers can learn as a result.(9) In a related article,(10) he came to the amusing conclusion that the term "strategic planning" is an oxymoron not unlike "progressive conservative" and "civil engineer." In his view, not only were the usual pitfalls of planning involved, but he also asserted that the entire concept of strategic planning is a grand fallacy.

The major problem for Professor Mintzberg is simply that there is little evidence that strategic planning produces effective strategies for organizations. He points out that less than 10% of strategies are successfully implemented.(11) He believes that strategic planning merely programs the conventional wisdom currently held by the organization and does little to encourage creativity and innovation. Using his nomenclature, a more accurate term would be "strategic programming."

Effective strategy-making, Mintzberg argues, requires creativity and synthesis. A more intuitive perspective of human nature and interaction is necessary to conceive and apply effective strategy. Planning by definition involves analysis and planners must articulate clearly and be precise. Plans must be delivered on schedule. His research findings show, however, that strategists actually create strategies in an intuitive and imprecise manner and never on schedule. His conclusion is that strategic planning is really incompatible with effective strategy making.

Rethinking Strategic Planning
All this leads to an important question: Is there a better way for organizations to make strategy? While the answer appears to be "not yet," many are rethinking strategic planning. Over the last decade, strategic planning has lost its popularity, and appears to be headed down the path of other techniques developed by academicians, popularized by consultants and foisted upon working managers. Well-known examples included cost-benefit analysis, zero-based budgeting and management by objectives—just to name a few. It remains to be seen what the future has in store for current management practices such as performance measurement and managing for results as newer techniques are developed and popularized.

Nevertheless, the current focus and emphasis of strategic planning appears to have changed in many organizations. Less emphasis is being put on core ideology (mission statements and values) and more upon developing practical initiatives. The need to clearly set priorities and limit commitments based on available resources is being recognized. By focusing on shorter time frames in their strategic planning process, organizations are recognizing the unpredictability of the future and the problems inherent in forecasting.

In some organizations, especially in the public sector, business planning with its added emphasis on resource requirements, has replaced strategic planning. Others are using a hybrid of strategic planning and business planning (called strategic business planning). Sustainability has become a strategic issue and initiative for many organizations to recognize and uphold their social, economic and environmental responsibilities.

Finally, the role of inquiry in organizational change may eventually transform the practice of strategic planning. Inquiry appeals not only to our analytical nature (Left-Brain), but also to our intuitive nature (Right-Brain). Inquiry-based approaches include "what worked best" in past situations and "wishful thinking" to fulfill organizational dreams.

Today's strategists and strategic planners are recognizing that problems and opportunities are often the result of our own perspectives and perceptions of phenomena. How we view them essentially determines our ability to effectively address them and to continue to develop our work and ourselves. Through inquiry we may gradually achieve the state of mind needed to face the challenges of ambiguous and extreme situations. This was the main interest of the ancient Oriental strategists, development of the strategos (the Greek etymological root of strategy)—an individual endowed with the skills of strategic thinking and leadership.

Chuck Henley is a former Deputy Director of Public Works for the City of Richmond, Virginia and former County Engineer for Multnomah County, Oregon. He can be reached at (804) 346-0317 or


(1) See, for example, H. I. Ansoff, Corporate Strategy, McGraw Hill, New York (1965)

(2) See, for example, J. M. Bryson, Strategic Planning for Public and Nonprofit Organizations: A Guide to Strengthening and Sustaining Organizational Achievement, Josey-Bass, 1988

(3) Bryson, op. cit.

(4) Preface to Readings in Strategy and Strategic Planning, Edited by Harry Costin, The Dryden Press (1995)

(5) See, for example, the writings of Sun Tzu (The Art of War), Thucydides (Peloponnesian War) and Cesar (Gallic Wars)

(6) See, for example, Tao Te Ching, trans Richard Wilhelm, Penquin Classics, 1976

(7) H. Mintzberg, "The Strategy Concept 1: Five Ps for Strategy," California Management Review, Vol. 30, No. 1, Fall 1987

(8) See, for example:
The Nature of Managerial Work, Harper & Row, New York, 1973
The Structuring of Organizations, Prentice-Hall, New Jersey, 1979
Power In and Around Organizations, Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 1983
Mintzberg on Management: Inside Our Strange World of Organizations, The Free Press, New York, 1989 (Collier Macmillan, London)
The Strategy Process: Concepts, Contexts, Cases (with J. B Quinn), 2nd Edn, Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 1991

(9) H. Mintzberg, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, Prentice Hall International, Hemel Hempstead, 1994

(10) H. Mintzberg, "Rethinking Strategic Planning Part I: Pitfalls and Fallacies," Long Range Planning, Vol. 27, No. 3, pp 12 to 21, 1994

(11) Mintzberg, op. cit.