Despite the fact that the literature on strategic planning has diminished considerably in the last fifteen years or so, still most organisations do it. So argues a recent article in the Journal of Management Studies by Jarzabkowski and Balogun. It has become what GH Mead would term a social object, and in terms of the social game of organisational practice lots of people do it because lots of people do it. Strategic planning still has its academic adherents, but probably the scholar who has done most to drive a stake through its heart is the Canadian academic Henry Mintzberg. With his two books The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning and Strategy Safari the second written with two colleagues, he has done more than most to call the practice into question.
Equally Ralph Stacey, from a complexity perspective, has argued that strategic planning must serve some other purpose than being a means of predicting and controlling since they so signally fail to do so in an unpredictable world. Most organisations seem to get by despite their strategic plans rather than because of them. At his most laconic Stacey has considered strategic plans to be like an organisational rain dance.
So what is going on in organisations when people are trying to plan strategically and what kind of thinking do they get caught up in?
Firstly, and perhaps most notably post economic crisis, it seems to have caught on that the future is unpredictable. So managers in an organisation that I was working with recently realised that to attempt a ten year plan as they had done, meant that they could only indulge in the most general of intentions and predictions. Intentionality is important if staff are to feel that together they can act in the world and not just be acted upon. As Hannah Arendt has noted, to dispose of the future as though it were the present does bring an enlarged sense of purpose. But to be too precise about these predictions and intentions is to tempt fate, or to appear overbearing, particularly if those intentions involve the well-being of other people. So the document itself was described as a kind of organisational lodestone, or North star. It had to be convincing enough, but not prescriptive. So strategic planning is partly about the group’s ‘we’ identity and people’s sense of their collective ability to act with purpose.
Secondly there is a tension around clarity versus complexity, which is often expressed in visual or spatial metaphors. On the one hand staff will need to feel that they ‘know where the organisation is going’ can see ‘the big picture’, or ‘how the organisations is positioned”. Clarity will often involve leaving out a lot of the detail, abstracting and generalising, which can only be done drawing on a rich and complex hinterland. On the other hand, once staff read the document they will want to recognise themselves in it. This will often evoke the kinds of strong feelings around identity and values that the practice of leadership also provokes. So some staff will sometimes argue for putting some of the complexity back in – where am I and my department in this? Many strategy documents get caught up in these contradictory processes: there will be clear simplifications which once achieved will then call out strong calls for recomplexification. So strategic planning is partly about knowing how, or even if you belong, about recognition and mutual recognition. Who gets included and excluded from this document, and on what basis?
If staff in an organisation have intentions to bring about change for the good, yet have to express these intentions very broadly for reasons that they have framed them over a ten year period, then how will they know that they have made the changes they aspire to? There is a temptation here to get drawn into talking about outcomes, even ‘measuring outcomes’. But how would you then measure an outcome, which implies precision, if your intentions are rather general? Again, managers can get caught up in what feel like contradictory pressures to measure general intentions specifically. There is a temptation to borrow from scientific vocabulary to shore up the concept and to talk of baselines, indicators, qualitative and quantitative data. Stakeholders would need to be convinced that the organisation meant what it said. Strategic planning, then is partly about credibility and about being able to demonstrate seriousness of purpose.
As an experiment we tried to abandon the spatial and visual metaphors and tried out the idea of thinking of the strategy as a narrative. A good narrative is one which is convincing, pleasing, interesting and you can broadly anticipate what will happen next. You can recognise it as a good narrative. At the same time as wanting to predict what will happen, we may also want to be surprised, so there is room for novelty and innovation. A narrative can be a moral tale, tailored to specific audiences and improved with the telling.
Perhaps that one of the reasons that organisations continue to undertake strategic planning is as a form of organisational narrative. It is a social and collective practice which provides a means of describing intention and articulating identity. Staff have the opportunity to recognise themselves as actors in the story, which they will have contributed to, and which is often one of high moral purpose and heroic ambition.
At the same time, the narrative is likely to evoke strong feelings in both the narrators and the listeners who will try to influence each other in the creation of the story and how it is to be played out. Rivalries and conflicts will arise as people struggle to co-operate. There is a lot at stake in this bid to dispose of the future as though it were the present in a narrative that we continue to co-create.