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The language of strategic planning

My university just completed a round of strategic planning, its periodic cycle of self-evaluation, redefinition, and goal setting. Many of my colleagues were excited about the opportunity to define the future. Others were somewhat jaded, seeing such plans as bookshelf documents to be endured until the next planning cycle. Still others were agnostics, happy to see us have a good strategic plan but determined not to let it get in their way. As a linguist, I’m sympathetic to the idea of formalized systems, but the planning cycle also provoked my lexical curiosity. Where did the various terms of strategic planning come from and what do their origins tell us?

Strategic planners talk about mission, vision, and values, which are roughly glossed as “why we exist,” “where we are going,” and “how we act.” Planners talk about goals and objectives, which seem to differ primarily in specificity. Sometimes planning is run by consultants (who, according to one wag, are “people that borrow your watch to tell you what time it is”). There may be benchmarks, best practices, flowcharts, and logic models outlining success measures and responsible parties.

Historians of strategic planning, such Henry Mintzberg, author of The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, have traced the mid-twentieth century trajectory of strategic planning first into business, and later into military, academe, and the non-profit world. Mintzberg and others find antecedents in works of military theory like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Clausewitz’s On War as well as in labor studies like Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management.

Where did the various terms of strategic planning come from and what do their origins tell us?

Mintzberg identifies a host of approaches, classified as either descriptive (such as cultural, cognitive, and learning approaches, which consider how organizations work) or prescriptive (such as those focused on positioning, planning, or design, which are concerned with how organizations should work). And like grammars, which also use the terms descriptive and prescriptive, all plans evolve.

Origins aside, the language of planning offers an odd mix of terminology. An organizational “mission” might sound military, but the idea is ultimately connected with religion. The Oxford English Dictionary documents the noun as from the early 1500s, with a citation referring to “the missioun of the haly spreit.” The word later came to describe the work of missionaries, government emissaries in foreign missions, tasks generally, and military operations specifically—a use which the OED dates from only 1910. The term “vision” was originally a prophetic apparition but soon referred to the act of contemplating the unseen. And “values” originally referred to monetary worth and only much later ethical or moral standards. The jazzy compound “core values” is not in the OED, but Google n-grams, which allow you to search word and phrase frequencies over time, show it picking up steam in the 1960s and spiking in the 1980s.

“Goals” and “objectives” also have telling etymologies. “Goal” began as a noun of uncertain etymology, which by the 1500s referred to the finishing point of a race. “Objective” began as an adjective, borrowed from French and referring to properties of objects; by the early 1800s it referred to a thing external to the mind and by the late 1800s to a military target defined as “The point towards which the advance of troops is directed.”

The terms “strategic plan” and “strategic planning” do not appear in the OED as separate entries, but we find a 1952 citation to “management’s policy and strategic thinking” and a 1971 citation for the term “strategic business unit.” A close look at the OED treatment of “strategic” suggests that its use was gaining new traction in the late 1950s and early 1960s, with citations referring to “strategic hamlets” and “strategic studies.” And Google n-grams shows a big spike for “strategic planning” in the 1960s. The upward trend persists until a decline in the mid-1980s, when other approaches to analyzing corporate culture rose in popularity.

One final interesting term is the acronym SWOT, which refers to an analysis of an organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, often determined by interviews with stakeholders and focus groups. The acronym makes its first appearance in the early 1960s. Albert Humphrey, the researcher whose name is often associated with SWOT analysis, wrote that:

SWOT analysis came from the research conducted at SRI from 1960-1970. The research was funded by the Fortune 500 companies to find out what had gone wrong with corporate planning and to create a new system for managing change.

By 1963, SWOT was already being mentioned in the publications by the United Nations as a tool for coordinating and integrating the work of water resource agencies and it shows up in Björn Rosvall’s 1966 book The Business Engineer, which introduces it this way:

There is, however, a tried and tested method to compress the work; using a ‘SWOT’ analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats). This method concentrates on important changes in the external and internal environments. You may well have come across it already.

The terminology of planning is continually evolving to capture new ideas. And while exploring the language of planning may not change your attitudes about the planning process, it may give you a better understanding where the ideas and concepts come from.

Featured image credit: “Post-its” by Daria Nepriakhina. Public domain via Unsplash.

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