So perhaps I should be more specific in my criticism and say that it is not that "strategic planning" sessions are not held, but rather it is the processes employed, or the lack of them and the quality of the discussion that takes place that I take issue with.
The Oxford dictionary defines strategy as:
“A plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim”
The origin of the word is from the Greek stratēgia, meaning "art of troop leader; office of general, command, generalship", which obviously speaks to its military origin.
Like most people in the resources sector I have been involved in strategic planning in the various companies for whom I have worked for much of my career . As with many of you I suspect, I have found the processes employed to have varied significantly from one company to another, both in terms of structure and content.
I have seen a number of methods employed to run "strategic planning" sessions, both good and bad. In its worst form it has amounted to nothing more than an MD or other senior executive leading the board and/or senior executives to a predetermined outcome. Typically such sessions have an agenda prepared and circulated in advance that pre-empts the matters that will be discussed before leading everyone to a preferred conclusion! In my mind this is not strategic planning. Such meetings are also often time constrained to ensure that the participants stick to the “script”.
It may well be that the MD or executive leading the strategic planning session has indeed been through a process in their own minds that led them to their conclusion or preferred outcome, but this is not a true strategic planning process.
A strategic plan needs to be contextual and needs to be owned by the group drawing it up, this can only be achieved if the process of arriving at the plan is open, engages all of the players and is free to take-up lines of discussion that may not have occurred to one individual in drafting an agenda leading towards their preferred outcome.
Maybe because I am an engineer I like structure and whilst an agenda is indeed a structure, it is not what I mean in this context.
To me structure in the context of strategic planning, refers to a structured process which guides the participants through all of be factors that they should consider in arriving at their strategic plan.
To date the best example of a structured process that I have encountered, is that which was used by Gold Fields in the mid-2000’s and is based on the book by Chantelle Ilbury and Clem Sunter called Games Foxes Play (GFP).
The Fox is used as a metaphor to describe how we should change our plans based on changing circumstances. As Ilbury and Sunter point out, Foxes do change their minds - when they realise they are wrong about something or something better exists out there.
The GFP approach is a two phase process. The first phase they call "defining the game" and comprises five steps:
1. Scope of the game
2. The players
3. Rules of the game
4. Key uncertainties
They refer to the second phase as "playing the game", this too has five steps. They draw on the strategic insights gained in the first phase and take a more focused view of the possibilities ahead:
9. Measurable outcomes
10. The meaning of winning
Participants in the process engage in what the authors call a “conversational model” which is circular rather than linear, with each step of the process interconnected so that it can lead to a review of earlier material based on the conclusions reached later in the process.
A graphic, extracted from the book, showing this conversational model is shown below.
The process also allows for the noting down during the course of the discussion, issues for potential action (IPA’s). This allows thoughts and ideas that may not relate to the immediate area of discussion or to be captured and incorporated later in the process if they are considered to have a material impact on the options and decisions.
The process is not quick and nor should it be. A strategic plan is an important document that will guide the actions of a company or a site for the next 12 months or until circumstances change significantly, in which event all good Foxes will reassess their strategic plan
Gold Fields used to set aside two days each year, for each of the company's site teams to go through the GFP process to arrive at the following year’s strategic plan. The budget was then shaped around the actions needed to achieve the strategic plan.
I will not attempt to lead you through the process that is not my purpose here. If you are interested in this area, then I would thoroughly recommend obtaining a copy of the book and reading through the process and maybe even encourage your company to use it for their next strategic planning session.
My intention was merely to raise it as a model of how a structured process can and does work. This one does happen to resonate with me, but I am sure that there are other models that work as effectively.
I also wanted to make the point that a company's strategic plan requires a commitment of time. Whilst the actual time may vary from company to company and process model to process model, I am firmly of the view that a sound strategic plan cannot be arrived at in a mere two hours!
For those who are interested in furthering their reading on strategic planning, I would also recommend  lessons from the future and lessons in radical innovation, both by Wolfgang Grulke.
Whilst not about process per se these books highlight how radical thinking can create new futures for a company that are currently not imagined.
In  lessons, I found it particularly interesting to read Grulke talking about the life cycle of an organisation and describing how, in the first half of a company's life cycle the focus is on customer value but in the second, it is on the business efficiency and costs.
He argues that inevitably companies become so large that an enormous number of people within the business are focused solely on managing the organisation, rather than focusing on what the business actually does. At this point smaller, more versatile companies start to take market share away from the established player.
Whilst mining, it could be argued, is different to retail or banking, which is where Grulke focuses much of his discussion, perhaps the analogy is in small and lean juniors acquiring the cast off assets of the majors and turning them from loss-making enterprises into profitable ones.
In conclusion, whether it is GFP or some other process model, I urge would you to adopt a structured process rather than an agenda for your next strategic planning session and give it the openness, application, diligence and time that it deserves because there is surely no more important an activity that you can undertake than to arrive at a good strategic plan.