The End of Strategy

I spent much of my professional career developing and implementing Strategic Plans. The hardest part of this was that most people didn’t (and still don’t) know what ‘strategy’ is: the choice among alternative courses of action, not the determination of goals and objectives. It’s about how, not about what.

Most of the ‘strategic’ plans I was given (by bosses, and by clients I was advising) were not plans at all, but rather targets. I began to realize that my bosses and clients didn’t have the foggiest idea how to achieve these targets, which is why they just set them and left it up to me to achieve them. Indeed, for the most part they didn’t care how they were achieved, so I got rewarded and applauded when the targets were achieved (even if it was not my doing) and chastised and rated poorly when they were not (even if the failure was not my doing). In part this is because in most organizations today the bosses do not now how to do the work of their subordinates, so they can offer nothing of value in setting strategy (i.e. in intelligently suggesting how to achieve objectives and targets).

This failure of understanding and setting strategy seems endemic in all kinds of organizations today. Executives’ compensation is wildly disproportionate to the value they provide (they are mostly overpaid number crunchers), and the amount of control managers have over an organization’s activities, and success or failure, is absurdly overestimated.

The middle column of the chart above shows how strategic planning should work, but in most organizations it does not work at all. Instead of strategies being developed collaboratively and intelligently, they are either left up to individuals (who are given only objectives and targets), or imposed without consultation; in the latter case, the worker must figure out how to work around the (inappropriate) strategies to achieve the targets and objectives, while still helping the boss save face by making it appear s/he at least tried to implement the strategies. It’s a farcical game that goes on everywhere, and, especially in organizations that have grown too large to manage, it’s one of the reasons most organizations are so dysfunctional. The energy of the organization comes from control and authority, but the control is a myth, and the authority is consistently misapplied.

As I began to work with and study what I now call Natural Enterprises, and later Natural Communities, I began to realize that, rather than trying to make strategic planning actually work, these organizations had actually given up on strategic planning entirely, and instead operated improvisationally, with an entirely different modus operandi that is illustrated in the third column above.

Instead of being driven by a Mission and Vision (which are inherently and perpetually dissatisfied with the current state, such that any happiness in those organizations that goes beyond transitory success is highly suspect), these organizations are driven by a Purpose — a shared “Why are we here?” statement that, for the most part, needn’t and doesn’t change. Instead of getting “stretch targets” that can never be achieved, they aspire to sustainable happiness of their members (workers, customers, community). They worry not about how to ‘grow’ to get somewhere else, but how to continue what they do well now.

Since they have no objectives and targets to become what they are not now, they are free to focus on assessing the risks and threats to sustaining what they have already become. And they have no illusions of being in control: instead of trying to change their environment, they seek to prevent (in a few cases), mitigate (more often) and adapt to (most often) the changes, risks and threats that they envision. It is an essentially conservationist organizational philosophy, instead of the ‘grow or die’ philosophy that prevails in most organizations today.

And instead of authoritarian coercion and leaving the ‘how to’ up to the people on the front line by default, these organizations empower and trust those people to decide not only the ‘how’ but the ‘what’ of their actions, drawing on their personal passion and sense of responsibility, and their experienced, improvisational skill to know what to do, and how to do it, in the moment.

The cynicism, distrust and alienation that prevails in most large and traditional organizations preclude such an approach, which is why the economy and culture that has created such organizations is unsustainable and crumbling. Once this economy and culture collapse, I expect to see such an approach, which worked in pre- and non-civilization cultures, become once again the way most human organizations operate — though of course at a much smaller scale than today’s civilization.

We would be wise, I think, to emulate these Natural Organizations now, to the extent we can do so. Giving up on the folly of top-down strategic planning in today’s volatile and hugely unpredictable world only makes sense. We can and should learn to co-operate Natural Enterprises and Natural Communities improvisationally, replacing Strategic Planning with Resilience Planning.

But old habits die hard. Consultants and ‘expert’ advisors to all types of organizations have been steeped in the Strategic Planning ideology, and continue to push this dysfunctional approach on their clients. Even the Transition Movement, for example, often tries to create Future State Visions and Descent Plans that are more about what can be implemented (now) than about scenarios of what might need to be adapted to in the future, more about trying to control the community’s destiny than giving its members the capacity to adapt resiliently to the unforeseeable. It is no wonder that many Transition communities’ efforts are stalling.

Resilience planning is about growing better, not bigger. It’s about sufficiency, and sustainability, and responsibility, and trust, and adaptability and giving with the faith that our gifts will come back to us. It’s more about learning and being than doing. It’s about taking joy in what we are doing well, and how we are being of use to the world here, now.

It’s time we tried it.

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