I recently served on an interview panel for a senior management post for a small not for profit. It was an interesting experience for encountering in condensed form how a sample of candidates, all with pretty good experience and qualifications for the job, understand the practice of management.
The first thing three of the five candidates picked up on is the fact that the organisation’s strategy document is not written conventionally. It does not have a vision, mission and values statement from which all work is understood to flow. Instead it sets out an overview of the work currently undertaken, has an assessment of some of the difficulties the staff have encountered in carrying out the work and goes on to set out some areas of future work, grouped under themes, which staff would like to find out more about over the next year. There are areas for concern, exploration and research, but no targets, no KPIs, and no performance indicators. The candidates were asked to review the strategy critically, and for three of them the strategy was inadequate if there was no vision, mission and values. How could you know where you were going if you didn’t set a direction? What was interesting about this for me was not so much their orthodox understanding of what a strategy should be, but their lack of curiosity. So one of the things they might be telling the interview panel is that if the organisation wants to be recognised in the community of other organisations also producing strategies, then it would need to produce a document that looked similar to everyone else’s. And it might be good advice.
However, what was more disturbing was the implication that somehow staff in the organisation had not thought of this and had not set out deliberately to write something different for well grounded reasons. Candidates may have thought they were being helpful: they were showing us best practice. One of the things that they were also demonstrating is just how the dominant discourse becomes dominant. It is ideological in the sense that some managers think it is just the way things are, or should be.
Another candidate brought the anxiety of change with him like a chill wind. Those organisations which don’t grow and expand will wither away. So it is necessary to be ambitious, to set stretch targets for growth, to dream big dreams and to set performance indicators to measure whether we are achieving our dreams.
Other candidates were searching for grounds, which we have explored in previous posts, that is some secure and rational basis from which to proceed. So, in answer to the question about how the organisation should go about looking for partners to help them implement work in the developing world three of the candidates wanted systematically to identify principles for doing so first. The staff team would need to sit down and brainstorm principles and criteria, would then search for partner organisations which fulfilled these criteria, and would then draw up a contract document to agree a shared vision and common principles. In these examples thought always precedes action in an attempt to plan things out for the good using rational criteria.
In fact, the organisation’s current partners have become so for a variety of different reasons: through serendipity, because they got in contact, because people met at conferences, through a mutual friend, because they were recommended, which is pretty much the story of how we form relationships in the rest of our lives. Of course, funding relationships are more problematic, but they remain relationships.
All the candidates were thoughtful people who cared about what they were doing and were earning considerably less in the organisations they currently worked in than they might earn elsewhere if they took their qualifications and experience to a private sector organisation. And yet they took up their theories of management relatively unproblematically from a particular dominant discourse which now seems to prevail in the all sectors as though managing were everywhere the same. So in a domain where one might have expected a discussion about justice, politics, negotiation and power, instead we found ourselves talking about contracts, criteria, targets, added value, efficency, effectiveness and non-negotiables. Social development has turned into something which is ‘delivered’ and is rendered in the vocabulary of economics.
One of the candidates said that all strategy processes were addressing similar questions: it was about deciding where we are, where we want to get to, and how we get there. This prompted me to think about what my three basic questions would be for the process of strategizing from a complexity perspective, and I decided that my questions would probably be quite different: who are we, what’s going on here, and what are we becoming?