Strategic planning: it’s just as much about the present as the future

17 August 2016
SERIES Rethinking organisational development 20 items

Over the last seven years, I’ve been involved in numerous workshops helping think tanks do strategic planning for policy engagement. But I’ve found that, after the workshop, it’s not uncommon for plans to be left on the shelf to gather dust. In short, staff go back to grappling with the needs of the present.

This suggests that for think tanks to change sustainably, strategic planning can’t be a one-off or short term process that produces a rigid, forward-looking document. It’s the process of strategic planning that’s valuable. This means allocating more time to exploring the here and now, and the direction staff are already moving in, rather than just an idealistic future.

Organisational life is about communication between staff

Movements like Doing Development Differently and Thinking and Working Politically recognise how development processes are complex and political. Efforts to bring about development need to be iterative, locally led and adaptive. But when it comes to promoting change within an organisation, which can be just as complex, we’re not always applying the same principles.

Organisational life unfolds through communication and conversation amongst staff and between them and their stakeholders. Strategic planning, therefore, should be a chance to reflect on the quality and nature of what’s happening between staff – and on a regular basis.

Experience shows that paying attention to people’s own practice with others can be transformative for them and their organisations. For instance: UK National Health Service (NHS) managers negotiated changes proposed by central government through discussion and deliberation (usually informal and behind closed doors) rather than through formal strategy processes. Having a senior nurse work alongside staff to reflect on the local circumstances when a patient fell over (rather than setting targets) reduced patient falls in a UK hospital by 48 per cent.

This resonates with William Easterly’s conceptualisation of searchers (as opposed to planners). Or, with problem driven iterative adaptation, where solutions are not found in advance but through positive deviance and experimentation.

Less time ‘crystal-ball-gazing’, more time in the present

Strategic planning often involves a lot of guesswork, since organisations (and the world) are constantly changing. As a result, there can be a big difference between the plan that’s created and what actually happens.

So, while it’s important to help staff try and predict what they’d like to do in the future, I would spend considerably more time working with members of staff to step back from the daily rigmarole of their work and be more conscious of what they are doing and how they are engaging with policy. For example, through the production of narrative and storytelling.

Questions to inform a conversation amongst think tank staff wanting to be more strategic in their communication could include: What role do staff have in providing policy advice? How do they work as a team? What problems do they face? What effects do they think their actions are having?  And what similarities and differences are there in staff experiences?

Only after discussion about what’s happening in the present (especially in the differences between staff experiences), would I ask staff to consider how they might do things differently.

This could lead to a strategic plan. But given the provisional nature of strategies, the conversation itself (and future ones like it) could be more useful in helping staff to improve their policy work.

Last year in a workshop with business think tanks from across southern Africa, the first of a five day workshop focused on existing policy engagement practices. It provoked lively discussion about what they were doing. Without prompting, this led to a fruitful discussion about what they might do differently.

A reflective approach can be daunting, but may lead to more sustainable change

Traditional strategy workshops often start with various frameworks or venn diagrams. While these can be helpful to structure thoughts, they can sometimes stifle or limit the scope of discussion. For example, if you use a 2 x 2 matrix to discuss possible actions, there’s little space to consider anything that doesn’t fall within the four quadrants.

Similarly, when it comes to drafting a strategy document, the need for clarity might mean glossing over nuance expressed by participants. When staff read the document, they might not recognise what they said in it. Some might withdraw from the process whilst others might argue for the inclusion of what they said. It’s very difficult to say how the content might be interpreted by staff members (if at all) in the future.

Taking a more reflective approach is time and labour intensive. And the lack of structure of a conventional strategy workshop may lead to some anxiety amongst participants and facilitators. But it might just lead to substantive and sustainable change.