Strategic Planning: it’s not about the document

I recently undertook some work with someone whose job it was to support her senior management team put together the organisation’s next ten year strategic plan. This had resulted from an 18 month planning process which I had joined at various points along the way, having been invited to attend some of the workshops and join in the conversation. I was quite surprised to have been invited because when this colleague had originally asked me for support I had argued that I probably was not the best person to do so since I had conceptual difficulties with strategic planning, particularly 10 year plans. Nonetheless, I had been invited along partly because of my critical attitude and the grist that I might provide for such an activity. I found this a very open minded approach and was encouraged to join in.

Managers had been serious in wanting to involve as many people as possible in thinking about the organisation and its achievements, and a wide variety of employees had been involved in discussions about what had and had not gone well during the last strategy period. These workshops had been very lively and sometimes difficult, and people who had been involved in them had asked when they might participate in something similar again in the future.

Meanwhile, my colleague had put together several drafts of the strategy, which was a synthesis of the workshops. This synthesis had been subjected to further discussions by the senior team when they had argued over what was and was not a priority, what they should and should not put their energies into. The Board had seen a later draft and professed themselves satisfied with the outcome. However, the more revised the draft became, the less she could interest her senior colleagues in what she was doing. She found this very frustrating since her task was not complete until they could all ‘buy in’ to what the strategic plan was proposing. She needed to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s. Somehow they had lost their energy, and were now concentrating on other things as though the job were already done.

What might be some of the reasons for her colleagues’ lack of interest just at the time that they should all be enjoying the achievements of a long period of work?

Well, it was a clear and well written document but it comprised many of the things that one would expect to see in a plan, particularly one construed over 10 years. Staff working in the organisation would work harder and smarter, would diversify the organisation’s income streams, would think harder about its effectiveness and would work with people who most needed the organisation’s services. Staff would be accountable, transparent and hard working. The document contained an assessment of the likely socio-economic trends that the organisation might encounter, and had some ideas about how staff might respond. However, it was difficult to find anything in the plan that one would not have expected to find after 18 weeks worth of planning activity rather than 18 months.

This is no particular criticism of the plan as such, since it was clear, well written and thoughtful. It was also quite anodyne. In order to write about 10 years worth of work which lies in an unpredictable future, it was only possible to do so in highly abstract and general ways, particularly after much synthesis of very lively, complex discussion and many revisions and further syntheses. With each synthesis, the plan becomes more and more remote from the enlivening arguments and discussions which produced it. Indeed, there is very little of the discussions in the document. What staff in this particular organisation had encountered when they had tried to wrestle with their intentions taken up from the last plan were simply not present, partly because it is not customary to do so in a future-oriented document.

There are a number of observations that we might make about the function and significance of strategic planning processes and the documents that they produce, which we might consider relevant to many organisational contexts.

Firstly, this particular document had all the hallmarks of current managerial thinking with its future-orientation and it lack of acknowledgement of the past. To plan strategically involves considering what we would like to achieve in highly idealised ways, and then work backwards from there in logical steps. This is a method made popular by the American management theorist Russell Ackoff, with an approach he termed idealised design. Although it is important to try and predict future impediments to what we might like to do in the form of global trends, this does not involve paying much attention to our own prior experience. The reference point is ‘ought’ rather than ‘is’.

Secondly, although day to day practice in organisations is largely about the tension arising from both knowing and not knowing what it is we are supposed to be doing together, strategic plans are predicated on knowing and choosing. The purpose is to predict and to clarify, thus cutting through tension. The strategic plan is an attempt to impose order on potential disorder. However, this is only seen from the perspective of senior managers sitting at HQ, who are, after James C Scott, ‘seeing like a state’. They can only describe intentions in highly abstract, generalised ways, if we accept that this is what a plan is: a set of intentions. It can give little idea about how these generalisations might get taken up by staff members throughout the organisation in their very different contexts.

Thirdly, the process that leads up to a strategic plan, and perhaps the plan itself, are what GH Mead referred to as ‘social objects’. In other words, they are generalised tendencies to act in particular ways: because many organisations develop strategic plans based on workshops and consultations, so many other organisations will do the same. People act this way because other people have acted this way, which produces certain expectations about how this process should be undertaken.

Fourthly, and arising out of the three previous points, the strategic plan and the processes that have produced it have an anxiety-reducing function. Because this particular organisation is a peer of similar organisations which have similar plans, it makes it very difficulty not to have one. In resolving the tension between employees by engaging them in a ritual of choosing this set of priorities rather than that, in having a document that satisfies Board members and other external stakeholders as a symbol of certainty, as a token of belonging (we are a member of a certain organisational club) and managerial knowing (‘we now know what direction the organisation is headed’), the strategy may greatly reduce employee anxiety. The reduction of anxiety may also partly explain the seeming disinterest of my colleague’s senior management team, even before the process had completed. Everyone has breathed a sigh of relief that we have overcome our differences and we now ‘know what we are doing’. One might think that the document has served its purpose even before it has been circulated.

What interests me in all of this, however, is the idea of strategising, rather than strategy. What seems to me to be the most important aspect of all strategic planning is the process of bringing people together to explore difference, which is enlivening because it is challenging. In the end, as the senior management colleagues have demonstrated, it’s not about the document.

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