Strategic Planning is Dead?

The road to hell is paved, not only with good intentions, but also bad choices.  Choices have consequences which require further choices.  Getting it right once is easier than getting it right consistently and continuously, especially when the definition of “right” is shaped by changing circumstances.  That's why so many businesses fail and so few survive over the long term.  It’s not that the ones that failed didn’t plan.  It is one thing to make a plan.  It is another to execute the plan.  When the planning and operational execution processes are decoupled, as they often are, eventual failure is almost assured.  It is one thing to plan incremental product line changes and cost saving measures.  It is another to anticipate and effectively prepare for longer term market shifts and competitive threats…especially when the related investments pay out over decades rather than years…. 

….as they do in energy. 

Incumbent  institutions, e.g. governments, schools, churches, plus energy utilities and their regulatory overseers, seem especially prone to overlook the cumulative effects of shifting circumstances.  Ironically, in an institutional context, changing circumstances can be offered as an excuse for myopic planning.    I cite as anecdotal evidence a church planning meeting I recently attended.   Our meeting leader started the discussion by saying that things are changing so rapidly these days that "no one does strategic planning anymore".   Consistent with this sweeping generalization, we were encouraged to come up with goals that would take less than two or three years to achieve. 

Let’s not quibble about the term “strategic”.  Institutions aren’t strategic.  Their purpose is to serve needs that don’t change much over time.  But what if needs do change?  Then, wouldn’t planning that is at least long term, if not necessarily strategic, be a good idea?

It would.  For energy utilities, it once was.  There were carefully and regularly updated long term plans for regional energy supply and delivery infrastructure.  As energy supply options began to proliferate and evolve, the plans became controversial, especially in California.  Uncomfortably so. The solution?  Let private investors decide what power plants to build and where to build them. 

No more controversy about the long term.  Magically, planning horizons moved closer in by a couple decades.  Policy discussions could focus on details of supporting what is happening today, not worrying about how the future might unfold.  Much less risk of making planning mistakes. Planning became a matter of setting relatively broad and publicly popular near term goals and adjusting regulatory processes to compel, or at least appear to compel, their achievement. 

In California it sort of worked.  Long term planning responsibilities, formerly undertaken by California energy utilities diligence and pragmatic sophistication, good data and only occasional over-reach, were quietly handed off to state regulatory agencies.  Ignoring some tens of billions of unnecessary cost, rampant brownouts and a major corporate bankruptcy, long term planning died a relatively peaceful death.    

If the goal had been to decouple planning from active reference to what actually happens on the ground, we are there, and no one is complaining.  The unspoken premise is vaguely consistent with our church meeting leader's outlook.  Focus on institutional stability and small near term incremental steps, and the long term decisions will take care of themselves. 

Or will they?  “Our long term plan is not to have a long term plan.”  Really?  Facing a future that promises to change nearly every basic energy and environmental planning assumption as accelerating climate change changes everything, we comfort ourselves with a set of targets that add up to what our state economy might require over a few more decades of business as usual in the energy sector.  Life is good.  For now.      

For many of us, pragmatic economic decisions shape individual choices.  Ultimately, they also drive our community, state and national choices.  No level of decision-making, from public to corporate to family, happens without accounting for dollar costs set by markets. 

Fortunately, such a pervasive cost metric actually and overwhelmingly favors clean energy…provided we get the numbers right, i.e. life cycle numbers…as in old fashioned long term electric system planning.  Absent a shared vision at higher political levels, good numbers will have to at least be available to citizens and local businesses, plus opportunities for local investment that refer to these numbers. 

At the level of local decisions, whether we adopt holistic approaches to infrastructure planning or just focus on near term sub-optimizations, integration pays big dividends.  It is some comfort to report that it actually happens in real life.  To illustrate:  In a building design context, it is not good enough to achieve one or two building occupant requirements but not others, e.g. comfort but not security.  Low or zero energy related environmental footprints can be one of the requirements….not without some common sense rules, but it can.  It’s a matter of protecting building owners from higher than necessary monthly payments.  Why wouldn’t this be one of the requirements?

I’m reminded of my experience with an organization that called itself the Sustainable Building Industry Council.  Most of its members were companies or architects offering specialized energy related products or services.  SBIC’s overarching strategy was to recognize that building design needs to address a number of important requirements, energy among them, but not just energy. 

This recognition led to the notion of "whole buildings". The result was a web based compendium of design guidance called the Whole Building Design Guide.  Long term planning may now be dead in many contexts, but holistic building design is not and hopefully won’t be even as we execute non-plans along many other pathways. 

Perhaps it would be a manageable step for  holistic and sustainable integrated community resource planning to embrace and draw inspiration from the whole building ethic.  Whole communities comprised of whole people and whole buildings….an attractive notion that might even justify a bit of long term planning!    

Those of us who concern ourselves with energy, and want its production and use to leave a much smaller environmental footprint, must continue to push in realistic directions.  For example, over recent decades in California the push for building energy efficiency has been guided by pragmatism and a strategy of incremental innovation.  In California it has mostly been about the design of new buildings and replacement appliances for existing buildings. 

The incremental effect of pushing only where leverage is high, e.g. standards for new buildings and replacement appliances, isn't big enough or fast enough to comport with the rate of future climate driven change.  But it is directionally correct, i.e. if new buildings are more energy efficient, perhaps some of the their design strategies can diffuse into the remodeling and renovation of the much larger cohort of existing buildings.  The urgent and obvious question is: “How can we accelerate the diffusion process?” 

Likewise, if new communities and campuses are planned with net impacts and net benefits in mind, the resulting experience with integrated strategies can serve to inform policy choices for settled communities.  But not very quickly.  Unless we choose to make it so.  What will this choice entail?

In reference to climate impacts, we need a pro-active and economically informed strategy.  No…more accurately, we need thousands and millions of such strategies.  We need to plan long term, family by family, city by city, county by county, state by state.  And then execute the plans with a sense of urgency.  Institutions arguably may be able to punt on the matter of strategic planning and survive to tell the story.  It’s a natural choice. Not a good one in all cases.   

Let national and international leaders and diplomats take the credit, but let’s move now where and while movement is actually possible…in our own communities.  Our state and national political leaders will surely find a way to follow.

-- Gerry Braun

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