Monday, August 15, 2011

Any old plan will do?

Jonathan must mean this piece in the CHE. It's a complicated issue for me because I do actually believe in strategy and, especially, planning. What I object to, and what I think Jonathan also objects to, is pseudo-planning and empty strategies.

That also seems to be the point of Ginbserg's critique. He does not say that planning is always pointless, he says that many planning processes are not intended to actually guide behaviour. Rather, they are intended to promote the image of the leader, a university president, for example, who wants to leave his mark on the institution, or just appear to be doing something important, before moving on to another one, where he can repeat the process. The end of the article struck particular chord with me:

The documents promulgated by most colleges and universities ... lack a number of ... fundamental elements of planning. Their goals tend to be vague and their means undefined. Often there is no budget based on actual or projected resources. Instead the plan sets out a number of fund-raising goals. These plans are, for the most part, simply expanded "vision statements." One college president said at the culmination of a yearlong planning process that engaged the energies of faculty, administrators, and staffers that the plan was not a specific blueprint, but a set of goals the college hoped to meet.

Obviously what was important was not the plan but the process. The president, a new appointee, asserted his leadership, involved the campus community, and created an impression of feverish activity and forward movement. The ultimate plan itself was indistinguishable from dozens of others and could have been scribbled on the back of an envelope or copied from some other college's planning document. As I noticed while reading dozens of strategic plans, plagiarism in planning is not uncommon. Similar phrases and paragraphs can be found in many plans. In 2006, the chancellor of Southern Illinois University's Carbondale campus was forced to resign after it was discovered that much of its new strategic plan, "Southern at 150," had been copied from Texas A&M University's strategic plan, "Vision 2020." The chancellor had previously served as vice chancellor at Texas A&M, where he had coordinated work on the strategic plan. In a similar vein, the president of Edward Waters College was forced to resign when it was noticed that his new "Quality Enhancement Plan" seemed to have been copied from Alabama A&M University's strategic plan.

This interchangeability of visions for the future underscores the fact that the precise content of most colleges' strategic plans is pretty much irrelevant. Plans are usually forgotten soon after they are promulgated. My university has presented two systemwide strategic plans and one arts-and-sciences strategic plan in the past 15 years. No one can remember much about any of those plans, but another one is in the works. The plan is not a blueprint for the future. It is, instead, a management tool for the present. The ubiquity of planning at America's colleges and universities is another reflection and reinforcement of the continuing growth of administrative power.

Regular readers of this blog perhaps already know why this resonated with me. I blame a particular school of organization theory, namely, sensemaking, for the proliferation of meaningless strategic plans. Keep in mind that these theories are taught in business schools, and the graduates of these schools are increasingly running our universities.

Organizational sensemaking is closely tied to a school of strategy research called "strategy as practice", which focuses precisely on the process of strategizing and its immediate organizational effects rather than the long-term effects of planning (and action that follows the plan). Caricaturing somewhat, the basic insight here is that "any old plan will do". What is important is not the plan but the actions that are coordinated around it, even if those actions have almost nothing to do with the letter of the plan.

Karl Weick, who was the at the time the editor of the most prestigious journal in organization theory, the Administrative Science Quarterly, made what is perhaps the most famous statement of this insight back in 1983 in an article called "Misconceptions about Managerial Productivity" in a widely read journal called Business Horizons:

Planning isn't nearly as crucial for productive action as people think it is. I can illustrate this point most clearly by recounting an incident that happened to a small Hungarian detachment on military maneuvers in the Alps. Their young lieutenant sent a reconnaissance unit out into the icy wilderness just as it began to snow. It snowed for two days, and the unit did not return. The lieutenant feared that he had dispatched his people to their deaths, but the third day the unit came back. Where had they been? How had they made their way? Yes, they said, we considered ourselves lost and waited for the end, but then one of us found a map in his pocket. That calmed us down. We pitched camp, lasted out the snowstorm, and then with the map we found our bearings. And here we are. The lieutenant took a good look at this map and discovered to his astonishment that it was not a map of the Alps, but of the Pyrenees.

Apparently, when you're lost, any old map will give you the confidence to go on. By extension, when you're confused about productivity, any old plan will do.

Plans are like maps. They animate people. And this is the most crucial thing they do. When people actually do things, they generate concrete outcomes that help them discover what is occurring, what needs to be explained, and what should be done next. Plans, even when they are wrong, are useful because they serve as a pretext to start acting. What managers keep forgetting is that it is the action, not the plan, that explains their success. They keep giving credit to the wrong thing—the plan—and, having made this error, spend more time planning so that they'll have more good outcomes. They are astonished when more planning improves nothing. (Pp. 48-9)

I hope it is easy to see how this kind of statement, which passes for wisdom in management and organization theory, as well as the study of corporate strategy, might underwrite the production of the sort of strategy documents that Ginsberg is worried about. It should also be easy to see how the processes that produce those documents might be justified by it. Weick here offers an argument for not taking the details of planning very seriously. But, and this is important, he does not say that you should not have a plan. On the contrary, it is crucial to have a plan that doesn't mean anything (in the sense that a map of the Pyrenees is meaningless in the Alps). Action will take it from there.

I'm not sure I want to call it "irony"—perhaps tragedy would be a better word—but another likeness between the passage I quoted from Ginsberg and the passage I quoted from Weick needs to be emphasized. That story about the soldiers in the Alps who use a map of the Pyrenees to get back to camp? First of all, it is very unlikely to have ever happened. Weick certainly has no documentation for it (though he has told it again and again in the literature). Worse, like "Southern at 150", Weick simply plagiarized it from a poem that was published in the TLS in 1977. In 1998, addressing the annual meeting of the Academy of Management in San Diego, citing the same story, Weick boldly declared that in managament research, indeed, in any attempt to "find your way out of the puzzle of the human condition", "any old story will do".*

In that sense, I guess, Weick really was giving us a "blueprint of the future". We certainly seem to be following any old map any which way.

*This remark is reported by Barbara Czarniawska in her study of Weick's work, "Karl Weick: Concepts, style, and reflection", published in the Sociological Review.


Jonathan said...

Nice post. What strikes me now is how the pseudo-progressive rhetoric of process over product provides cover for meaningless activity and "practice." You don't have to have a good plan or carry it out, you just have to go through the motions and simulate.

Anonymous said...

*Very* nice post. My comments (addressed to SP) back at Jonathan's

Thomas said...

Thanks. Yes, the key here is the "progressive" rhetoric. I'm starting to look very closely at these things.