In conference rooms everywhere, corporate planners are in the midst of the annual strategic-planning process. For the better part of a year, they collect financial and operational data, make forecasts, and prepare lengthy presentations with the CEO and other senior managers about the future direction of the business. But at the end of this expensive and time-consuming process, many participants say they are frustrated by its lack of impact on either their own actions or the strategic direction of the company.

This sense of disappointment was captured in a recent survey of nearly 800 executives: just 45 percent of the respondents said they were satisfied with the strategic-planning process. Moreover, only 23 percent indicated that major strategic decisions were made within its confines. Given these results, managers might well be tempted to jettison the planning process altogether.

But for those working in the overwhelming majority of corporations, the annual planning process plays an essential role. In addition to formulating at least some elements of a company’s strategy, the process results in a budget, which establishes the resource allocation map for the coming 12 to 18 months; sets financial and operating targets, often used to determine compensation metrics and to provide guidance for financial markets; and aligns the management team on its strategic priorities. The operative question for chief executives is how to make the planning process more effective—not whether it is the sole mechanism used to design strategy. CEOs know that strategy is often formulated through ad hoc meetings or brand reviews, or as a result of decisions about mergers and acquisitions.

Our research shows that formal strategic-planning processes play an important role in improving overall satisfaction with strategy development. That role can be seen in the responses of the 79 percent of managers who claimed that the formal planning process played a significant role in developing strategies and were satisfied with the approach of their companies, compared with only 21 percent of the respondents who felt that the process did not play a significant role. Looked at another way, 51 percent of the respondents whose companies had no formal process were dissatisfied with their approach to the development of strategy, against only 20 percent of those at companies with a formal process.

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