So which’s better: a plan or a strategy?

The term “strategic planning” is arguably a word of the moment for many organizations and governments. It’s usage has become so viral that managements now liken the meaning to cost-saving, efficiency  and innovation. No wonder it has become one of the most frequently used word in budgeting process and annual reports in the province of Saskatchewan.

I would argue emphatically before now should anyone attempt to preach without base that strategic planning in government or an organization is a no brainer. And to be frank, I found nothing short of best in it not until I found someone who has a problem with how the actors are organized and their roles – and his  arguments are interesting. Henry Mintzberg (1994) in his publication on Harvard Business Review journal discussed “The Fall and Rise of Strategic Planning”. I’m here worried that after he wrote this review on the fall of strategic planning; many governments are still scrambling to adopt and nurture same. Let’s talk about this.

Just so you know, Loizos Heracleous (1998) published a paper on Long Range Planning titled “Strategic Thinking or Strategic Planning?” There were indications that the confusion as to which of planning or strategic thinking were useful remained a pre-90’s aged debate. However, amidst the arguments, his work believed that

…strategic thinking informs strategic planning/management and that strategic thinking without strategic planning/management will cannibalize itself in a quest for structure and process.

In this paper, Henry believed that having a plan is not same as having a strategy and planners shouldn’t be given so much focus as they currently receive. He posited that strategic planning is rudimentary and procedural as opposed to innovative thinking. In his words,

Strategic thinking is the building blocks of informed strategic planning. Planning features working with what is available (tools, divisions, departments, business units, resources, etc) as opposed to strategy that in most cases requires inventing new categories, not merely rearranging old ones.

I agree with this to some large extent, but while we see strategic thinking as thinking outside of the box; it is more important to know which box to think outside of – a data-driven planning provides insights for choosing this direction. We should also all note that best of strategies do not drive it’s self agenda. A popular sociologist, Philip Selznick warned that strategies take on value only as committed people infuse them with energy. We need doers as much as we need planners!

So what’s Henry’s thought?

I can take on an a random guess that Henry borrowed his ideas from some of the values and ethics of Weberian Civil Service practiced in Canada – which stresses that the employees (likened to a planner) provide the relevant information up there, so that the elected (likened to managers) can be informed about the details down below without having to immerse themselves in them. In a way he’s advocating division of labor, while’s putting more authority to decide on the leaders/managers or the elected – which they already have anyway. The borrowed lines below is from Government of Canada website on values and expected behaviours that guide public servants in all activities related to their professional duties.

  • Public servants shall uphold the Canadian parliamentary democracy and its institutions by:

  • 1.1 Respecting the rule of law and carrying out their duties in accordance with legislation, policies and directives in a non-partisan and impartial manner.

  • 1.2 Loyally carrying out the lawful decisions of their leaders and supporting ministers in their accountability to Parliament and Canadians.

  • 1.3 Providing decision makers with all the information, analysis and advice they need, always striving to be open, candid and impartial.

Where I think Henry was wrong.

“Planners shouldn’t create strategies, but they can supply data, help managers think strategically, and program the vision”.

Excuse me Henry but this is not entirely true. I may be biased here, but as a Data Analyst enthusiast; I disagree with your quote above, which happened to be the first line in your article that I read. Planners should not be restricted from coming up with strategies. And they should not only supply data, but bring refined insights from so-called data to the table for discussion. I am of the opinion that planners have the responsibility to bring options forward which would then form the basis of synthesizing real strategic decisions. These options doesn’t come from data, they come from several analysis that may result in strategies.

Do I have a support? Well, in any case Michael Porter, probably the most widely read writer on strategy, wrote in the Economist (below).

I favour a set of analytical tech-niques for developing strategy.

Aren’t these set of analytical tech-niques beyond data-sourcing? I bet they are and I’d think you believe they are. No wonder you wrote the paragraph below:

They (those responsible for planning) should work in the spirit of what I (you rather) like to call a “soft analyst,” whose intent is to pose the right questions rather than to find the right answers.

Dear Henry, permit me to borrow one of your lines as my concluding remarks.

I believe that all viable strategies have emergent and deliberate qualities, since all must combine some degree of flexible learning with some degree of cerebral control.

That said, planning is an important aspect of every strategy and management. An informed retrospective study on what has been, status quo and a further matching of the information therein to plot the destination maps help planners to build a guided (but not rigid) directions into the future. I agree with you that planners should not make deliberate efforts to ‘force’ (convince or confuse) decision-makers into taking their advise, but there should be some balance in the marriage between the two for a coherently successful system and strategic process to emerge.

My Request

Please do share your thoughts or criticisms below in comment box. Should you want to read the document, please see this link.

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