Monday, May 21, 2012

Strategy and Planning

"Those who approach strategy as planning almost always filter any opportunities through current capabilities. Instead of determining what the organization must become to deliver in new and big ways, they never really think big." (Ann Latham)

"These days, a brand’s first job is to be interesting. And being interesting for most brands, most of the time means new ideas, new things to say, new ways to say it. ... Big ideas militate against that. Big ideas tend to stop you having new ideas." (Russell Davies)

Latham and Davies have been doing this much longer than I have, and they're better at it. But I'm starting to develop my approach to academic writing into a new perspective on research strategy at the institutional level, so I have to try to think like a business visionary. Now, obviously the point of putting these two quotes side by side is to indicate a tension. There's a lot of advice out there and it sometimes pulls in opposite directions. In this post, I want to pull in the direction of planning, i.e., Russell Davies' approach.

When thinking about research strategy, and even something as relatively pedestrian as a publication strategy, universities and departments sometimes make real efforts to "think big". Implicitly following Latham's advice, they try to "determine what the organization must become" rather than "filter [their] opportunities through current capabilities". This usually means developing research "platforms", and establishing special research units, around themes that have some currency in either the business world or policy circles. It explains the proliferation of research programs in, say, "sustainability". Many of the researches involved in these "strategic initiatives" have turned their attention on this theme, sometimes away from other things they would rather have been doing, and sometimes quite seriously twisted their attention in the process. They are pursuing someone's else's ideas, not their own.

And that's what Davies gets right, to my mind. If you impose a "big idea" on your organization, it will prevent you, i.e., your members, from having new ideas. That's because even if the big idea is "new" to the organization, and new to the people who will implement it, it is old in the sense that it existed before your organization and its members came up with it. The ideas that shape large strategic initiatives are given in advance. A truly productive (and joyful) research environment will generate truly new ideas, which means ideas that the researchers themselves did not know they were going to have. Such an environment will have a better chance of being, precisely, interesting.

If you want a thriving research environment you have to stop worrying about "who you are" and "what you must become". That is, you have to stop thinking like a strategist and start thinking like a planner. There is some truth is Latham's perspective as a perspective on strategy. Her mistake, I think, is to promote strategizing as something that should be happening almost all the time in the organization. Instead, you need to do exactly what Latham argues against: you must filter your opportunities through your capabilities. You have to get your people to do all the small things they are already capable of and, importantly, ready and willing to do. You have keep your researchers interested if you want interesting results.

This of course also goes for the individual writer. Don't try to reinvent yourself when trying to get published, don't chase after other people's priorities (as expressed in calls for special issues and conference tracks). Try to get your ideas published. You must constantly be doing things, making things, in order to exercise your capabilities. And what you should be making, of course, is a series of coherent paragraphs that support claims you believe to be true. Your research department should provide you with a good environment to do exactly that. In such an environment, new ideas will follow naturally from old ones.

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