Strategic Planning – Rethinking the Process to Finally Get Results

Is your company’s Strategic Plan collecting dust on the CEO’s shelf?  I think I know why, and will recap what I have learned in my 39 years of financial management experience (Big-Eight CPA, CFO of a group of major U.S. corporations, philosophy & theology studies and Partner with B2B CFO®).

Strategic planning is not a new-age concept, having served as the cutting edge of the art of war in the Eastern world since well before Sun Tzu wrote a series of martial essays on the subject in China during the fourth century, BCE.  Great military strategists in the East learned how to win wars strategically rather than violently from Sun Tzu’s compilation of The Art of War(1). Sun Tzu was first brought to the attention of the Western world by a Jesuit missionary to Peking, Father J.J.M. Amiot, whose interpretation of The Art of War was published in Paris in 1772.  Unfortunately, that was well after generals in the West learned to win wars through extreme violence.

Amiot’s The Art of War was a major insertion of Eastern intelligent thought into what was to quickly becoming the Age of Enlightenment in the West, where traditional institutions, customs and morals had come under question.  Enlightenment influenced intelligent thought throughout the West to this day, and gave us terms such as coffeehouse, encyclopedia and democracy, and names such as: Voltaire, Hegel and Kant; Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart; Franklin, Jefferson and Madison.  Winning through intelligent strategy was advocated as the primary source for legitimacy and authority.  Strategy, thought and reason are inherently non-violent, which makes perfect sense in the world of business (don’t you think?).

Then why is your plan up there collecting dust?  There are five main reasons: (1) Leaders cannot be strategists, and vice-versa; (2) The practice of strategic planning as an exercise in intelligent thought has been watered down in Modernity to mean little more than business planning in prose rather than in numbers; (3) Intelligent thought has been cast aside in favor of making quick decisions, thinking on the run, and thinking outside the box: (4) strategic planning as a futuristic, visionary exercise means very little to almost every person working in mid-market companies, as their job is to work in the now or to analyze the past, and; (5) the day to day demands of business funding, cash flow and personnel matters always seem to get in the way.  For these reasons, strategic planning is not understood, is undervalued (if not hated) and, if done at all, quickly collects dust on the CEO’s shelf.

I recently attended a Leadership and the Art of War workshop in Honolulu, Hawaii. It was an introductory offering in the Art of War Series of IZS-Applied Zen, a program of the Institute of Zen Studies. In this workshop it was revealed that the nature of leaders and strategists differ greatly.

A leader is a person who is optimistic, has a broad scope, is easily followed, is able to inspire, and cares about much.  We practiced meditation for leaders by standing tall, chest out, legs firmly planted, hands stretched out to the side, humming peacefully and breathing slowly while focusing on our peripheral vision.  People would follow us because we were fair and saw the big picture.

The strategist, generally the wise elder of a group of tribes, is truthful to a fault, has an extremely narrow scope, a cutting edge and cares a lot about very little.  We practiced meditation for strategists by standing with one foot in front of the other, lunging forward while forcefully lowering a Samurai sword from overhead, exhaling loudly and focusing only on the head of the enemy.  We cut off what was in our way.

See the difference?  Diametrically opposed, leaders cannot be strategists and vice-versa.  Few humans have the ability to lead (less than 1%), but much rarer is the strategist.

Modern strategic planning has evolved into many forms of conventional “See, Think & Draw” or “Vision, SWOT, Formulate, Implement & Control” thinking.  Although the competition is discussed to some extent in these models, it often focuses on inward thinking, broad-based objectives, and action (who will do what by when).  The term ‘strategy’ is confused with the term ‘objective’.  Picture the meditation for leaders, above.  Knowing yourself first is important, so do it thoroughly.

After knowing yourself, true strategic planning focuses on the competition (enemy) almost exclusively, while being very exclusionary by deciding what NOT to do (what to cut… picture the meditation for strategists, above) given your own strengths and weaknesses.  Again, this is done only after you first focus on knowing your own company, knowing both what you are and what you are not.  Perhaps you hide in a niche, narrow you product line, de-hire some customers.  Remember to pick the battles that you can win, and emulate the competition in all other cases.  The focus, then, is on doing one thing and doing it very, very well (see Google’s core principle #2: “It’s best to do one thing really, really well.”).

Just as the skillful strategist can subdue the enemy’s army without engaging it, take cities without laying siege to them, and to overthrow countries without bloodying swords, companies should carefully plan to take advantage based on sound, honest competitive information.

To the Leaders reading this… Sun Tzu said: “Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.  When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal.  If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril.”

Do you really take the time to focus on the competition?  I mean really?  Do you focus at all on what not to do?  As an early mentor taught me, the best gardens are made not by planting more flowers but by picking more weeds.  Put the word “strategic” back into your business planning.  If you are a leader and not willing or able to be the less than charismatic strategist, then find a strategic thinker and put them on your team.

The following is a discussion of the main reason why the Strategic Plan is shelved… virtually no employees of the company are culturally able to understand it!

Finders, Minders and Grinders – The Informal Organizational Chart of Your Company(2)

Whether written or unwritten, the company’s organizational chart exists today. The future success of the company is dependent upon working within the rules of this informal organization chart. The problem is… the CEO likely doesn’t understand that it even exists. Once understood, the reasons why employees think the way they do become clear, and their reactions will be more predictable.

The Finder

In small to mid-sized companies, the function of the Finder is almost always filled by an entrepreneurial CEO. It is important to understand that the Finder is different from everyone else in our society. They typically have an above-average IQ, regardless of education, have high ethical and moral business core values, are very creative, aren’t in business just for the money, and, contrary to myth, care deeply about their employees and associates although they may not openly show their feelings. They are good relationship builders, delegate tasks to employees or associates, and cause sales and cash to come into the company.

Finders live in the future and have the attributes to take the risk to do something about the future. They will risk their time and their fortunes to make a difference in the future. The future is all that matters to the Finder, a key difference between them and others in our society. This focus on the future makes them a singularity in the business. Finders are often frustrated when they realize that they are alone in their concerns regarding the future of their company.

Finders spend a significant amount of time and energy attempting to pull (drag?) people into the future. They will hold meetings and retreats, write memos and emails, and use all methods to express their vision and ideas, the big picture. In frustration, they will sometimes say “Does anyone ever listen?” The answer is yes they will listen, but they will not understand.

Finders evoke strong emotions from others, such as love or hate. There is no reason to try to be friends with everyone, because the Finder is looking for leaders, not friends.

When the Finder goes home at the end of the day, the work goes home with him or her and permeates all thoughts and activities. The past is gone with little regret and today is the first day of the future.


Minders are the key administrative people of the company. A Minder might be the company’s controller, bookkeeper, finance manager, CFO, IT Manager, Personnel Director, etc. Minders are intelligent, desire to help and are very loyal to the Finder, and are typically very honest and ethical in their business dealings. The company will not survive without Minders, so hiring, training and retaining good Minders is critical for the success of any company.

Minders live in the past and are not future-thinkers. Most of the assignments given to Minders deal with historical matters or events that have happened in the past, such as historical financial statements, income and sales tax returns, last month’s bank reconciliation, fixing computer hardware or converting old data. I often remark that it is the job of the Minder to go in after the battle is over and bayonet the dead, but it is important that these tasks be done and be done correctly. Once taught how to do something, a Minder will do it over and over again in exactly the same way.

Finders simply need to be aware that it is often difficult for Minders to be concerned about something that might happen a year or two in the future while they are working overtime to try to finish documenting things that have been done in the past. It is hard for the mind to focus on two different time frames at the same time, and after a few years of being rewarded for their focus on the past, some say that looking to the future feels inappropriate to a Minder.

Over time, Minders run into difficult situations such as not having cash to pay employees or vendors, firing people, dealing with competing deadlines when trying to please the Finder while also getting their routine jobs done, and being put in situations for which they have not been trained as the company grows in complexity. Minders do not have the same intestinal fortitude as do Finders about these things they feel hopeless to fix. A Finder should neither expect a Minder to enjoy going to work each day to face these current-time problems nor to stay around after closing time (which they will do, but only out of loyalty and a desire for sincere appreciation for work well done). When the self-confident Minder goes home, they can put the problems in the back of their minds, but most Minders keep trying to “figure out” the problems of the day.


Grinders are people who do the physical work of the company. The Grinder is the person who makes widgets in a manufacturing company, drives nails in a construction company, makes phone calls in a telemarketing company, and puts cars together in an auto assembly plant. Grinders, interestingly, fill most sales positions. Obviously, these tasks are important to the company.

Grinders live for today. Key attributes of a Grinder are they like to work only in the present, often dismiss the past, fear the insecurity of the future, do not like to delegate, like doing one thing at a time, and will do as instructed, are very skilled at their jobs but rarely generate new ideas. Ten minutes before their shift they are in their cars in the parking lot, and ten minutes after their shift they are back their cars about ten minutes down the road.

When Grinders leave the building, their minds are on anything but work except for occasional thoughts of job insecurity. They live in what Dale Carnegie called “day-tight compartments,” which allow them to excel at controlling worry. Superior IQs are often suppressed in order to live a simple life. Come the next morning, Grinders will find themselves wanting to go to work each day.

Finders usually understand how to do the Grinders work (they often started their careers as a Grinder). As a result, Finders can easily hire Grinders to supervise other Grinders, and it is usually very difficult for a Grinder to pull the wool over the eyes of a Finder. Grinders distrust Finders as someone that makes too much of the money that “the Grinders made,” drives expensive cars, cancels profit sharing plans if they have to pay much money to Grinders, etc.

Grinders can typically fool Minders because Minders don’t know how to do their work, which makes Minders distrust Grinders. At the same time, Grinders distrust Minders because they get good pay for sitting in air conditioned offices all day looking for ways to cut Grinders’ pay.

Notes to the Finder at this juncture

All three types, the Finder, the Minders and the Grinders are important to the company. The point is to recognize that these differences naturally exist and to understand them. Don’t be disappointed when a Grinder leaves when the whistle blows – it’s a good thing. Understand when a Minder spends days trying to nail down a ten cent error in the bank reconciliation – it’s a good thing. It is lonely at the top for the Finder – it’s a good thing.

Distrust, although difficult to understand (especially of Grinders’ distrust of the Finder), is a fact of life. Keep it in mind and your words and actions might be better chosen from now on. You must also understand what Minders do so you can avoid getting sucked into playing their role when stuff happens.

Finding activities are much more important to the company than are minding or grinding activities – stay out of their hair! Keep your focus solidly on the future, or find someone else to be the Finder of your company. If you aren’t out there calling on current and potential customers, the Finder of your competition will be.

What this means to the Strategic Plan

The drastically different time focuses that Finders, Minders and Grinders underlies every human interaction in your company. At best, this informal organization chart makes employees like dark ships passing in the night; at worst it fuels distrust that is already naturally there.

The distrust isn’t usually recognized by the CEO, because that person has built a whole picture in their minds that everyone trusts one another and works toward a common vision. This simply isn’t the case, so recognize it. This affects the strategic planning process and undermines efforts to create and implement one.

Remember the faces and attitudes the last time you called employees or associates into a strategic planning meeting? Minders were thinking “If I didn’t have to be in this meeting I could get last month’s reports done that I’ll be called on the carpet for not having finished.” Grinders were thinking “What are they going to take away from me today?” You were thinking “Isn’t it going to be great in the future when we all embrace a strategic plan!”

Strategic Planning Isn’t for Everyone!

A well-crafted strategic plan will allow leaders to formulate their vision, achieve employee participation and strategically beat the competition.

It is the thinking, not the doing that makes strategic planning work.

Traditional Approaches Don’t Work (Stop Doing This!)

Traditional approaches to strategic planning (I call them “Fire, Ready, Aim” methods) don’t really work. They lack both strategy and planning because there isn’t time to think.  Without the thinking step, traditional approaches help you feel like you are doing the right thing.  Certainly you have heard their arguments:

  • “If you don’t have a road map, how are you going to know you are there when you get there?” Lewis and Clark smelled the ocean well before they saw it, but they knew they were there. Believe me, you and everyone else will know when you get there!
  • “Businesses don’t plan to fail, they just fail to plan.” Cute play on words, but without thinking strategically they seem to fail despite having the requisite plan on the shelf.

Long-term, traditional approaches to planning don’t work because they focus on doing instead of thinking. Our parents taught us to do–do–do–do, work hard at your job, buy a house, have kids and everything will be great when you get the gold watch at your retirement party. Doing leads to results leads to reaping.

  • You are fat so you go on a diet. Really? I gain weight when on a diet, don’t you?
  • You don’t eat right, so you take a vitamin supplement. That really works? My gag reflex perfects itself after a while and I can’t swallow another pill.
  • OK, so go to the gym. Yeah, right! I signed up for three years and went 10 times.
  • You do good deeds and you go to Heaven? Say what? I am a self-taught (by Grace) Christian, and that one never did seem right, but I digress.

Wouldn’t it be better if I could adjust my attitude, convincing myself that the change in lifestyle was necessary for me to live my life the way I wanted to live it, see my granddaughters grow up, etc? That is what motivates action.  That is the motivation that is lacking in too many strategic plans.

Why I Say Thinkingis the Key

Let’s examine support for the thinking approach.  Again I call on my theology and philosophy training and mention 17 of them:

  1. 717 BCE – King Solomon – Proverbs 23.7: For as a man thinketh within himself, so is he.” (Note – God gave Solomon riches that naturally go with the new wisdom.)
  2. Paul in 61 CE – letter to Philippians 4.8: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
  3. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote 100 years after Paul: “A man’s life is what his thoughts make of it.”
  4. Renee’ Decartes, 14th century philosopher is remembered for: “I think, therefore I am.”
  5. Born in 1694, author and philosopher Voitare wrote: “To be a hero, think heroic thoughts.”
  6. Sir Isaac Newton: “If I have done the public any service, it is due to my patient thought.” (died 1727)
  7. Thomas Carlisle, Scottish historian in the early 1800s said: “Thought is the parent of the deed.”
  8. Henry David Thoreau wrote: “What man thinks of himself, that which it is that determines or rather, indicates his fate.”
  9. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote two things: “A man’s what he thinks about all day long.” and “What your heart thinks is great is great; the soul’s emphasis is always right.”
  10. Late 1800s, father of modern physiology William James: “Human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.”
  11. “In 1905, James Allen wrote the book “As a Man Thinketh,” “The vision that you glorify in your mind, the ideal that you enthrone in your heart, this you will build your life by, this you will become.”
  12. In 1908, a fascinating conversation took place in America. The wealthiest man in the world at that time, Andrew Carnegie, was interviewed by a young journalist. Andrew Carnegie for some reason grew fond of the young man, asked him to stay for dinner, and that interview lasted 2 weeks. During their time together, Mr. Carnegie proposed that the young journalist invest the next 20 years of this life studying the 500 wealthiest men in the world. He would provide letter of reference and introduction to set up the interviews. He could cover all expenses but pay no salary. He asked if he were willing to accept that task of determining what these 500 men had in common, other than wealth, and then write it down and condense it down into a book and make it available to the world. The man accepted the challenge (in 28 seconds – Carnegie was only going to allow 60 seconds for a reply). The rest is history… (Ford, Edison, Bell, the Rockefellers, Wrigley, Orville and Wilbur Wright, etc.) in 1937 Napoleon Hill published Think and Grow Rich.(3) i.    First comes thought, then organization of that thought into ideas and plans, and  transformation of those plans into reality. ii.    By skipping thought, the plans may be widely accepted but only motivate temporarily.
  13. “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you are right,” by Henry Ford – 1930’s.
  14. In 1959, David Schwartz attended an award presentation for a salesman that found a way to
    produce 5x the sales of his next closest colleague. He had an average territory, average
    intelligence and actually took more time off than the others. What made him that much better?  In his book “The Magic of Thinking Big,” you will find the following seven words: “You are what you think you are.”
  15. Studying the more recent writings, Earl Nightingale recorded a vinyl record entitled “The
    Strangest Secret” that sold a million recordings in 1960 (before audio tape), and since then
    millions more. The six powerful words that launched the largest personal development
    corporation in the world, Nightingale-Conant, were “We become what we think about.”
  16. In 1990, another gentleman wrote “The Greatest Secret.” He wrote it for himself and
    shared it with no one for some time.… “Change your thinking and you will change your life.”
    The writer was Michael S. Clouse, one of the most sought-after speakers in the direct
    sales industry and a multi-level marketing guru.
  17. Another current author and speaker, Jim Rohn finally provided, in 1991, the roadmap on
    how to best go from where someone is to where they want to go: “Philosophy determines
    attitude, attitude determines actions, actions determine results, and results determine

Prejudice and Attitude Shapes Your Thinking

Thinking is only possible when you allow yourself time to think. Thinking, for you, then, is simply everything you know and how that information affects you. It includes the parents who raised you, the environment you were brought up in, siblings, classmates, books, classes, belief systems, etc.

Information affects you, and we are all different. You might call it our own personal prejudice. I remember the start of the first Gulf War and that people either loved the idea or hated it, depending upon their own personal bias.

Attitude is what you think about all day long at the rate of 12,000 words an hour. You are the largest influence upon yourself (and most of it is negative).

What Works (Start Doing This!)

  • Sun Tzu said: “Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril.”
  • Carefully analyze your business. Know what you can do and, more importantly, know what you cannot do. Determine your core values and what your mission is and then hire or contract with people that can get you there. Careful self analysis is painstaking, brutally honest and time consuming.
  • Carefully analyze the competition. Rate all competitors. Find their strengths and weaknesses. Plan to attack weaknesses but stay away from going head to head against their strengths.
  • Think strategically. Add a strategic thinker to your planning team. Strategic thinkers are rare, and leaders within a business generally can’t think this way, but it is important to first determine what NOT to do against the competition.
  • Find your one thing that you do well and learn to do it really, really well.
  • Identify the Finder, the Minders and Grinders in your organization. Learn how they think and don’t expect them to think like you.
  • Finders are the key to planning. Minders can take notes, but don’t expect them to visualize the future the way the finders do.
  • Grinders won’t tend to trust you, but remember that the best Finders used to be Grinders – identify Grinders that Finders see themselves in. Grinders in sales positions are great members of the planning team (if you can shut them up).
  • Always have someone at the meeting that you really don’t want to ever disappoint. Perhaps a spouse or mentor. The group might be smaller than you might have imagined, but it is mighty.
  • Get members to participate in facts, encourage them to be brutally honest, and compensate them well for their help.
  • Encourage and reward thinking more than speaking. Pass in notes if that might help.
  • Expect the self-analysis to take a couple of weeks to complete – several short meetings every other day – and don’t move on until you have a good sense of self.
  • Reward honesty and fix broken stuff.
  • Use SWOT analysis. Expect the SWOT analysis of the completion to take a couple of weeks to complete – several short meetings every other day – and don’t move on until you either know how you might beat each competitor or how you are going to stay away (under the radar or niche them).
  • THINK! THINK! THINK! This approach, and especially the writings of Napoleon Hill, is a proven basis for planning sessions… thought (to change our attitudes)→ plans→ actions→ results. This “secret” approach of Andrew Carnegie’s will greatly enhance our chances for success.

If this approach works – and it does – using it will allow you to build a financial wall around your business (and personal life) that is so strong that no earthly influence can penetrate it!

Now get ready to do strategic planning the right way, and go kick your competitors’ you-know-what!


Dennis Niven, CPA is a Scottsdale, Arizona partner in B2B CFO®, USA’s largest CFO firm focusing on companies with sales up to $75 million. We take companies to a higher level of success with our unique, proven six-step process – the GamePlan™. We pioneered this industry in 1987. We are unique and unlike companies that provide Part-Time CFO Services. Additionally, we are unlike a full-time chief financial officer or Part-Time CFO (e.g., interim CFO, temporary CFO, Fractional CFO, Contract CFO, or other companies that provide CFO services). We create a long-term, professional relationship on an affordable basis. Our services are provided objectively by seasoned partners who average 25 years of experience using The GamePlan™, our state-of-the-art process for this industry. With our more than 6,000 years of collective experience, it will be very difficult for you to ask a question that we can’t answer.

Learn more about Dennis Niven at



(1)  Sunzi, 6th century BCE, [Sunzi bing fa. English], The illustrated Art of war / Sun Tzu ; the definitive English translation by Samuel B. Griffith, Oxford University Press, 1963

(2)  Adapted from: Jerry L. Mills & B2B CFO, LLC, The Danger Zone / Lost in the Growth Transition, 2006. Finders, Minders and Grinders™

(3)  Napoleon Hill, THINK and Grow Rich, The Random House Publishing Group, 1937

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