Category Archives: planning

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. Continue reading


The structure of self-organisation

I am working with two organisations who co-operated together in responding to a natural disaster in a developing country. One is based locally where the disaster occcured, the other is based in Britain. We meet together to discuss how the co-operation has fared: what were the points of difference and difficulty? Where did the co-operation work well?

One of the strong themes of the day was the inherently political nature of large scale emergencies. The local organisation has its own constituency, which is a minority in the country affected. Every action and statement that employees make from this organisation could be misinterpreted by the majority community so there are different threads of opinion within the minority community about to behave in the crisis. Members of the Board of the local organisation have to make the best interpretation they can of the rapidly unfolding events to decide how staff should respond. Meanwhile, following global media coverage, the country becomes awash with foreign journalists and aid agencies, UN dignitaries and politicians who are flying in to file stories, see how they can help and also perhaps promote their own agendas. Everyone is pushed and pulled this way and that as money and other donations in kind flood in, some of the latter completely inappropriate. The money pouring in begins to drive the work: see we have sent you money, now why aren’t you doing something?

What the UK organisation brings is expertise in particular disciplines, water and sanitation or emergency housing for example, which has been gleaned from other crises around the world, as well as experience of working in disasters. However, they have never worked in this particular country before, they do not speak the language. They are there to support and advise and unusually are convinced that it is not a good working method just to take over.

Although both organisations share a common value base,  and are working in solidarity, power relations, trust, authority, leadership all quickly become prominent in relationships between people as they try to decide how to organise together. In fact, the local organisation has already been organising in response to the crisis. Local staff have already opened up their facilities to warehouse donations, have already opened a separate bank account to receive donations, have already responded by buying up winding cloth so that the dead can be buried appropriately, have sent  truck loads of food, water and supplies. They may not have the same experience built up of  years  of emergencies of this scale but they have a very good sense of how to start out by responding to this one. It is their own country, and these are their own neighbours.

There is a lot of negotiation to be done about how to work together, and there are things that the UK-based organisation can tell the local organisation about what is likely to happen. It is clear that some of the things they have to say are not at first believed and the local organisation has eventually to come round after experiencing them to be true. But it is also clear that some of the UK-based staff do not recognise the organisation that has already taken place and they say so in this review meeting: they refer to the initial responses of the local organisation as ‘unstructured’, and by this they mean that staff in the local organisation did not carry out a proper needs assessment, or have fully detailed plans that would be recognised by the UK organisation as a plan.

In order to sustain a response to an extended crisis staff from both organisations would indeed need to make plans together and be able to account for the money that was being spent showing how this met the needs of the people affected by the disaster. They would need to structure their ways of working and review them over time. But whose structure predominates, and what do we recognise as structure in the first place?

This kind of partnership requires mutual recognition which implies a potential shift in identity and ways of understanding in both parties. There is a danger however, that outside organisations laying claim to generalised expertise, systematised ways of knowing which have arisen from similar situations but in very different contexts, can both confound and undermine, the very people with whom they would seek to work in close co-operation however unwittingly. They may fail to recognise the structuring of self-organisation upon which they might graft their own support and suggestions, and instead, smother it.

Predicting the unpredictable – the struggle over control

A couple of years ago I was contracted to support a programme where peace workers were engaged in action to try and prevent human rights abuses towards a vulnerable population, and I have just been reengaged for reasons I will explore below. Every day in this particular country is different, since in times of military emergency there is no predicting quite how things are going to kick off. The peace workers do plan and undertake certain activities on a more or less regular basis, however.

Two years ago, their funders were dissatisfied with the quality of reporting on these activities and wanted to know what impact the peace workers were having. This is a reasonable question – why spend the money if we couldn’t decide whether it was making a difference or not? Of course, there was already plenty of anecdotal evidence that it was making a difference to the local population, who understood the peace workers’ efforts to be a kind of solidarity with their suffering, and they relayed their thanks in lots of different ways to the peace workers. But were they making any material difference, and was this difference worth the money being spent?

The managers of the project thought it would be a good idea to shape it using the logical framework approach (LFA) which is a planning tool widely used by donors to disaggregate projects into causally derived objectives. So, every project has an overall objective, which in this case was construed as being ‘to bring about peace’ in this particular country. Thereafter, the sub-objectives were logically derived from this overarching objective, and the necessary tasks and activities are supposed to tip out from these. If X, then Y. In each placement the peace workers were encouraged to report against these objectives.

So construed the planning and reporting were causing quite widespread frustration, and no better reporting. From the perspective of the peace workers, the objectives they were obliged to report against were often not the things that they ended up by doing because of the exigencies of the war that they found themselves caught up in. They were obliged to respond to whatever was happening, which might even prevent them from leaving home if there was a curfew. Moreover, the overall objective was absurd, given this particular programme’s tiny size. The programme was a contribution to bringing about peace, but not in any causally identifiable way. The nature of the LFA also implies progress towards a specified end point: we are here in a situation of war, and through our activities we will bring about a situation of peace, or fewer human rights abuses, or fewer attacks on vulnerable communities, at a certain point in the future. There will be improvement which we can demonstrate to having had a large hand in bringing about.

Seasoned observers of this particular conflict would probably say that the situation has got worse rather than better over the last 10-15 years. At most, and in the few locations where they operate, the peace workers might have contributed to preventing things deteriorating.

Together we decided to abandon the log frame, and the 10 objectives and to construe them much more broadly and simply. We developed methods of reflecting on what peace workers were actually doing in their placements, and, using narrative and systematic questioning of beneficiaries, we developed a more systematic way of reporting on the impact of their work and the attitudes of the beneficiaries. Wherever possible, we also counted things, such as how many people were helped through a particular checkpoint, for example. The intention was to get better at describing what peace workers were doing, rather than what they could or should be doing. We also put forward a proposal that at some point in the future the programme would employ some local researchers to question local people about what they thought of the peace workers, and how effective they were being.

And, two years later, the report from the local research organisation was the occasion of my being brought back into the project. One of the recommendations of the evaluation report by the local organisation was that the project should set much clearer medium to long term objectives, and use project cycle management techniques. These techniques, like the log frame, imply setting a goal for the programme to achieve, in say, three years, and then working back in logical steps from there. Perhaps we might even find ourselves being invited to set the overarching objective of bringing about peace in this particular country.

I was struck by how resilient and persistent these ways of understanding the work have become across all development agencies, irrespective of the context, and the type of work being undertaken. Not to use a log frame to plan the project becomes a badge of lack of professionalism, as though the managers in the programme had not realised the inadequacy of their approaches.

Project management, log frames, project cycle management arose out of the desire of funders to control progress, cost and effectiveness at a distance. Originally they were used for logistical projects, such as bridge building, but now they are applied in every aspect of human endeavour, as though social development can also be reduced to goals and milestones. Donors have a legitimate right to scrutinise the spending of their money, but in situations as complex as countries at war, and/or extreme hardship and poverty, how can any of us know what input will lead to what outcome. The effectiveness of logical if-then thinking in situations of extreme complexity breaks down. Rather than encouraging peace workers to respond creatively to the situations they find themselves in oriented by the broad purpose of the organisation sending them, they could instead be trying to fulfil and unfulfillable plan that meets donors’ needs more that it meets the needs of vulnerable populations.

The problems of planning for the good

The struggle over how we, as frail and vulnerable human beings, can use reason to make our way in the world, and work towards and preserve the good for us and for others, is explored by Martha Nussbaum in her book entitled The Fragility of Goodness (2001). By setting out the arguments of the Greek philosophers as they wrestle with the question of how human beings can make a more certain world and inure themselves against the vagaries of chance, Nussbaum navigates the paradox of the knowable and the unknowable, the precise and universal versus the particular and messy:


We have reason. We are able to deliberate and choose, to make a plan in which ends are ranked, to decide actively what is to have value and how much. All this must count for something. If it is true that a lot about us is messy, needy, uncontrollable, rooted in the dirt and standing helplessly in the rain, it is also true that there is something about us that is pure and purely active, something that we could think of as “divine, immortal, intelligible, unitary, indissoluble, ever self-consistent and invariable”[1]. It seems possible that this rational element in us can rule and guide the rest, thereby saving the whole person from living at the mercy of luck.


In the book Nussbaum contrasts the philosophy of Plato, who struggles to gain an unconditional vantage point of the good beyond the cave of appearances, with that of Aristotle who urges a return to these appearances as a way of rediscovering our humanity. For the former, science, or techné, holds out the prospect of allowing us to weigh, count and measure as a means of achieving endless progress and refinement towards the ideal. If we could reduce things which are different in kind to being commensurable, and thus capable of being quantitatively evaluated, then it would reduce uncertainty about what is to count as a good activity, since we can produce universally applicable measures where we can judge one quantity of a thing against another. We are merely presented with the choice of more or less of the same thing. Techné holds out the prospect of liberating us from our ordinary intuitions and attachments, which are unreliable and hold us hostage to our fallible humanity and to fate.


For Aristotle, according to Nussbaum, the striving towards a universal vantage point seems to deny the very conditions that make us human, since they try to pass over and deny the importance of the day to day complex phenomena in which our lives consist. If for Plato the only thing that makes life worthwhile are activities which take us away from the cave and up into the sunlight, for Aristotle it is the here and now, the diurnal messiness, towards which we should turn our attention:


But if it is a universal human desire to grasp the world and make it comprehensible to reason, then it seems clear that oversimplification and reduction will be deep and ever present dangers. In seeking to be at home, we may easily become strangers to our own home as we experience it. In our anxiety to control and grasp the uncontrolled through techné, we may all too easily become distant from the lives we originally wished to control…We need philosophy to show us a way back to the ordinary and to make it an object if interest and pleasure, rather than contempt and evasion. (2001: 260)


Aristotle criticises Plato for adopting a ‘god’s eye’ view of ethical action, forming universal judgements about the good outside of any particular human frame of reference. He himself is more interested in the plurality of the good, which can only be assessed, he would argue on the basis of judgement derived from experience. The difficulty of deriving universal rules and trying to apply them in advance of the experience itself is that it closes off the possibility of surprise. For Aristotle, in cases of judging the good, rules are just rules of thumb, with each particular circumstance that we encounter capable of providing substance for the revising of these rules. By focusing on the practical, Aristotle notices that everyday experience is by its very nature changeable and complex, thus much less amenable to precision and universality.


Plato aspires to an ideal world of abstract universals, where detached rationality acts as a hedge against the fragility of human goodness. Aristotle advises us that giving priority to the general over the particular loses us the ethical value of surprise, contextuality and particularity, which makes us more vulnerable, but is at the same time an acknowledgement of our humanity.

[1] Euripides – Trojan Women.