I found myself sitting among a large group of experienced managers who were being updated on the strategy process by the deputy CEO of their particular organisation. He proceeded to explain how he had gone about developing the next corporate strategy in terms which I have critiqued extensively on this site. In critiquing systemic managerialism previously I have always been anxious not to caricature, not to set up an easy straw man opponent in order to knock it down. I have been concerned that if no-one these days really proceeds to explain strategy as vision-mission-values, sets up working groups to develop organisational values to underpin the vision, and then suggests that members of staff who don’t follow the values may have to go and work elsewhere, then there is nothing really to critique.
But what I found on this occasion was a text book example, perhaps a text book still in its first edition, of what I engage with elsewhere as idealised design. Originating in cybernetic systems theory and developed in the thinking of Russell Ackoff, idealised design assumes that fomenting excitement in staff who work in an organisation towards an idealised end point, increases motivation, commitment and performance. There is very little evidence for this claim, and given how long these methods have been used in organisations with change-weary staff, it would be just as easy to make the opposite claim that such abstract idealisations are just as likely to call out cynicism, negativity and disbelief particularly in the UK. Judging from the conversation which took place later at coffee, I think the group in which I was sitting may have been strung out along the spectrum from enthusiasm at one end, to bafflement and frustration at the other.
A number of things struck me about the experience of participating in this presentation. The first was the way the logic of the method distracted the speaker from the reactions of his audience. As he proceeded to explain in rather Jesuitical fashion how he and his team had worried about the order of the words in the vision statement, whether it should be ‘internationally renowned for being the leading X’, or rather ‘renowned internationally for being the leading X’ he failed to notice how many people in the audience, either literally or metaphorically, were sitting with their heads in their hands. In the first instance the vision looked very much like the vision from the previous strategy, as far as anyone present could remember it. And secondly, a number of people in the audience had worked for other organisations who also aspired to being ‘the leading X’, ‘recognised as the leading X’, or internationally renowned for being the leading X’. A formula is no more or less convincing just because it is repeated endlessly. What were the chances of success if everyone else was pursuing a similar strategy?
The second was that where the speaker expressed doubts about word order, he entertained none about the assumptions upon which his thinking rested. Rather than noticing and responding to the disquiet of a number of his audience, expressed through body language, and latterly through questions, instead the speaker continued to warm to the abstract logic of his boxes and to insist that he knew what he was doing. At one point, and perhaps in order to convince us, he produced slides with empty boxes arranged in hierarchies which were yet to be filled in in the next round of work. Strategy as wordless, hierarchically nested boxes held aloft by the logic of the thinking.
The time set aside for questions proved a rather testy affair. Questioners working within the paradigm wanted to clarify it and dig it deeper. Since it was so generalised and abstract, most of the words on the slides could be taken up in a variety of different ways. Those approaching it from a critical position, for example asking whether an organisation can really ‘have’ values, evoked defensive responses from the speaker, who reasserted that of course, the strategy wasn’t perfect, but he knew how to ‘do’ strategy.
All in all I found it rather a dispiriting meeting. Where a senior manager had proceeded with the intention of uplifting his audience with an aspirational future he had instead confused many and demoralised some. This is partly to do with the method he had chosen which dealt in abstract terms very far removed from the daily experience of most of his audience. But it was also due to his inability to notice and respond to what was going on around him and in relation to what he was saying and doing. The greatest failure was an absence of mutual recognition: the senior manager failed to recognise the reaction and concerns of his audience, while many in the audience failed to recognise in the strategy and how it was being presented, their every day concerns.
As an outsider you might have cause to worry about this organisation where senior managers have a greater commitment to their slides and the systemic method underpinning them than the quality of participation between people. If you thought that the future health of an organisation was not to be found in the logic of nested boxes, but in the spontaneous responsiveness of senior managers to what is going on you might conclude that there is still much strategy work to be done here.