How can businesses create a shared vision for a sustainable future?

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Systematic Review

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Planning for the future is an essential part of business leadership, but traditional approaches to planning are limited in their ability to tackle current challenges. Greater change and complexity make it more difficult to project the future accurately, and problems increasingly require collaboration across multiple stakeholders.

In 2013, business leaders in South Africa asked: “How can businesses engage in strategic planning that is linked to a shared vision for a sustainable future?” They wanted to understand how to integrate South Africa’s National Development Plan into the strategies of private and public sector organizations. In response, NBS South Africa (NBS-SA) commissioned Dr Martina Linnenluecke, Dr Retha de Villiers Scheepers, Mr Sarel Grönum, and Ms. Chanel Venter to study research on strategic planning. The researchers reviewed 195 academic and industry sources.

Download the full 100+ page Systematic Review for an in-depth look at the research project. A condensed version of the Systematic Review is available as an Executive Report.

Determining the Right Fit

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to planning. Research identifies four dominant planning approaches in business: projection, adaptation, visionary planning (shaping the future) and transformation.

The research recommends that organizations ask three questions before choosing the planning approach that best fits them.

  • How complex is the issue at hand? For simple issues, future developments can be projected from past trends. However, solving complex problems with many influences requires different approaches.
  • What are our underlying beliefs and assumptions? The authors identify three main perspectives that are held by organizations: rationalism, naturalism, and humanism. The chosen planning approach should fit the belief systems held by the organization.
  • How active do we want to be in influencing societal change? A planning approach should reflect the participating organizations’ degree of engagement in actively shaping the future.

Four Planning Approaches

Depending on the answers to the questions above, organizations can choose between four planning approaches. These approaches ­differ from each other along two dimensions: 1) how engaged the organization is in influencing the future, and 2) how predictable future outcomes are.

Figure 1. Four Planning Approaches

Four Planning Approaches (chart)

  • Projection – This approach involves a low level of engagement in shaping the future and assumes that the environment is highly predictable. For example, forecasting is a mechanism that implements a projection approach by extrapolating key trends from past data.
  • Adaptation – This approach still involves a low level of engagement, but emphasizes the need for quick responses to changes. An example of this approach is enhancing agility, by developing organizational capabilities to detect and respond
 to emerging changes.
  • Shaping the Future – This is a proactive approach for the organization, based on greater predictability with a large role for the organization in identifying and shaping a desired future. Related approaches include lobbying, stakeholder consultations and entrepreneurial actions.
  • Transformation – Transformational planning involves a high level of engagement, while emphasizing that envisioning and influencing the future is a collective effort. It is based on the belief that growing challenges present opportunities for organizations to define a vision with others. For example, in transformative scenario planning, a broad array of stakeholders engages in identifying scenarios and designing coordinated responses.

A Framework for Planning for a Shared Vision

The resulting framework is outlined below. The centre of the figure shows the four planning approaches (see white box). Each 
is associated with particular planning tools (see dark blue). All are situated within a context of regulations, norms, and organization-level strategies, as well as underlying belief systems. This context influences managers’ choices. In turn, managers may influence this context through stakeholder engagement and collaboration.

Figure 2. Planning for a Shared Vision: Approaches, Mechanisms, and Techniques

Figure - Planning for a Shared Vision (framework)

 What's Included in this Report

  • A guide for choosing an approach for strategic planning that is linked to a shared vision for a sustainable future.
  • A review of mechanisms and techniques for strategic planning, with case studies that demonstrate their use.
  • A review of underlying belief systems that can be held by organizations.
  • An overview of the role of planning in the relationship between the public and private sector, with a focus on the south African context.
  • An overview of the role of innovation in organizations’ response to the challenges of a sustainable future.

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