Being strategic – values, politics and power in organisations

I was struck in some work I am involved in at the moment how the phrase ‘being strategic’ is just as difficult a concept to unpick as is ‘living our values’ or ‘fulfilling our vision’. All these phrases appeal to universalities partly as justification for action but partly as a way of overriding dissent. So the idea of being strategic is the claim by managers that they have, as Norbert Elias put it, made a detour via detachment. They have tried to stand back from the day to day hurly-burly, and drawing on hindsight and foresight, have tried to develop a more reality-congruent way of working.

So in my current work, senior managers made a set of decisions that they then claimed were strategic. However, the decisions that they made were contested by different groups within the organisation who came up with different interpretations of what it might mean to be strategic. The dispute over what we mean when we say that something is strategic also involved the appeal to values. Senior managers claimed that their set of decisions would better suit the constituency the organisation was set up to serve: it made staff more accountable to this group of beneficiaries. Opponents of the decision argued that, to the contrary, if the senior managers had any understanding of what the organisation was set up to achieve, they would have made an entirely different set of decisions. Both groups appealed to the organisation’s values and mission in support of what they were arguing. The ensuing dispute became so heated that senior managers felt they needed a consultant to advise them on how to go forward.

From my privileged position of being able to talk to staff within the organisation who sit along the spectrum of opinion between one pole of understanding and another it becomes clear how the power relations between people have affected how the  decisions were made in the first place and how they will be taken up as the interaction unfolds. Although the term ‘strategy’ sounds high falutin, and is adduced to mean big, important and significant, it arises out of the struggle between perhaps six or seven people sitting round a table, co-operating and competing over what they want to happen. Discussions that have taken place before the strategic meeting, coalitions of interest within the meeting, and perceptions of the relative strengths and weaknesses of each of the players will affect the outturn.

Even though I am an outsider in this hubub of conversations around this particular phenomenon in the organisation I have also begun to affect what will eventually happen. I myself become engaged in the discussions, and despite the fact that I have no stake in the outcome, find myself participating fully in trying to make sense of what is going on. In doing so I am influencing what is happening and people begin to move in their thinking. This movement may not necessarily result in people deciding differently about what is the right thing to do: they may simply conclude that they were right all along. However, in the process of uncovering why we think what we think to each other, and in the leavening process of revealing our assumptions to each other, our understanding of what has been going on changes. Some managers start to say to each other that in the light of further discussions, the decisions that they took may not be quite as ‘strategic’ as they first took them to be.

This does not necessarily imply bad faith on the part of the managers concerned, merely that, with hindsight we are all better able to see how we became caught up in a particular way of understanding what we were dealing with. And the process of uncovering assumptions is not easy. Some resist the need for reflection in the first place, because it implies a challenge to authority. And some participants in this particular discussion have become more or less antagonistic to each other. Some who feel in a less powerful position, and feeling vulnerable, have stated their case in more stark terms than they might have meant. The heated interactions between them and others have affected how they have understood themselves and thus how they have expressed themselves. Conflict can lead to polarisation. But it can also be a helpful stimulus to review our positions, that our view of the world cannot be taken for granted.

All in all, the claim to be acting strategically has a rich hinterland of meaning and complexity involving value choices and political jostling between all of the participants as they each lay claim to the high ground of truth.

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