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What is the difference between strategy and planning?  I get this question a lot.  It is not that people don’t understand planning, but there is often an unclear line in their minds between where strategy stops and planning starts.  Others think that a strategy is a plan (which it is not).  This articles explains the important difference between strategy and planning.

People seem confused over the difference between strategy and planning

I have met senior people in “Strategic planning” roles who describe their job title as an oxymoron;  a contradiction in its own sentence.   In discussion forums, when people ask for definitions of strategy, most answers start with “A strategy is a plan to….”.  But if a strategy is a plan, then what is a strategy?  Of course they are different. They are two different words, and it is vital we understand the difference for our organisations and when we explain it to our people.

When I train people in strategy thinking, I provide a clear distinction between strategy and planning.  It is straightforward really (but frequently over complicated).

The most simple difference between strategy and planning

Put very simply, imagine a box on the floor that represents your organisation:

  • Strategy is choosing where to put the box, its size and even whether it is even a box.
  • Planning is working inside the box, deciding what to do about the choices that were made.  Of course you still need action, executing those choices.

Another way of looking at it is

  • Strategy is about understanding your environment and making choices about what you will do.  Think, if you like, of where and how to play.
  • Planning is about making choices about how to use the resources you have and the actions you will take to achieve the choices made inside your strategy.

If you want to learn more, I have some recommended reading: Have a read of “Strategy Safari” by Henry Mintzberg or “Good strategy – Bad strategy” by Richard Rumelt. Both are must- read books on strategy and the whole breadth from strategy, through planning to action.  Mintzberg’s “The rise and fall of strategic planning” is an important book on this topic.  Sun Tzu’s “The art of war” is insightful, though somewhat confrontational in the choices of strategy and also can be a little obscure, depending on the quality of the translation.

Alternatively, if you want to cut through all this material quickly and effectively, we do provide strategic thinking training and strategic thinking workshops.  I have helped organisations as diverse as Oil & Gas and Charities, Central Government Departments and dot.com start-ups.  So, if you are serious about being strategic, (as well as planning and acting strategically) give me a call.  My contact details are on the page.