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Strategic Planning with Critical Success Factors and Future Scenarios

Linda Parker Gates

Strategic planning is a process for defining an organization's approach for achieving its mission. Conducting successful strategic planning is essential because it creates a foundation for executing work, as well as setting the stage for enterprise architecture, process improvement, risk management, portfolio management, and any other enterprise-wide initiatives. Government organizations are operating in an environment of almost near-constant change, however, which makes it hard to conduct strategic planning efforts successfully. Moreover, when organizations do tackle strategy, they often get bogged down reflecting on the past or speculating on an uncertain future. This posting describes recent work investigating and integrating techniques to improve organizational strategic planning.

For the last six years, my team in the SEI's Acquisition Support Program (ASP) has been working on a strategic planning approach that incorporates two techniques that complement strategic planning, but are rarely integrated with it. The first technique, critical success factors, determines the handful of key areas where an organization must perform well on a consistent basis to achieve its mission. The second technique, future scenarios, allows organizations to explore the forces that are most important, yet least predictable to them. These techniques are used to generate robust strategies that will serve the organization well in several potential futures, along with early warning signs to understand how the future is unfolding.

We've piloted the integrated strategic planning approach in several government organizations with positive results. In one organization, we applied the approach incorporating both the critical success factors and future scenarios techniques in their entirety to help an organization create a five-year IT strategic plan. They were able to adopt a strategy that incorporated the development of a self-service customer capability (a strategy that was identified as robust given the critical uncertainties of the organization's future), while continuing to pursue formal management of external stakeholders (a critical success factor). Without the integrated use of these techniques, the organization would likely have missed the opportunity that the self-service capability represented, and may have neglected or failed to align external stakeholder management with their strategic goals. Not only did the effort produce a robust strategic plan, but the enhanced process achieved other important--but intangible--benefits: strategic conversation among the leadership, data-based decision making, and increased communication across the organization.

One important feature of our strategic planning approach is that organizations can implement it in stages, at any level, and still realize benefits. Another organization we worked with implemented the enhancements over several annual planning cycles. They have been able to see consistent and gradual benefits with the incremental implementation. It's been gratifying to observe how the techniques complemented each other and expanded our clients' strategic thinking.

In the newly published technical report Strategic Planning with Critical Success Factors and Future Scenarios: An Integrated Strategic Planning Framework, I combine established research in strategic planning, critical success factors, and future scenarios with our insights and lessons learned regarding the value and limitations of the integrated strategic planning framework. The report also highlights specific considerations for applying this approach in the context of strategic planning for information technology.

We plan to continue our work in this field over the next several years. Proposed areas of investigation include:

  • creating an integrated strategic planning process to support the integrated framework

  • connecting critical success factors and future scenario indicators with project indicators in the monitoring stages of an integrated strategic management process

  • exploring how critical success factors and future scenarios can lead to nimbler approaches to strategic planning for use in an agile environment

Our experience over the past six years shows how critical success factors and future scenarios can significantly improve the depth of thinking and analysis in strategic planning efforts. By managing operational commitments and the uncertain future effectively, they also demonstrate their value in a strategic management (e.g., Balanced Scorecard) process. I welcome your feedback.

To download a copy of the report, please visit

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