By Jim Whitt
On October 9 I spoke at a conference in Australia on the topic of change. I had no idea how timely my presentation would end up being. I’ve discovered a whole new meaning for the phrase “down under” — from the time I left the U.S. on October 4 the world has turned upside down. When I left, gas prices in Tulsa were about $3.39/gallon. Today they are about $2.59. The Australian dollar was worth about 92¢ compared to the U.S. dollar. It dropped to around 65¢ earlier this week and today it’s worth about 71¢. The world financial markets have bordered on collapse and the stock market has experienced historic swings while I’ve been down under.
So how do you plan for the future in such turbulent times — strategic planning? Forget it — traditional strategic planning fails miserably (why else would so many organizations that do it be headed south right now?). According to Dr. Robert Burke, another speaker at the conference, only 5-10% of strategic plans are ever implemented. I reached the same conclusion nearly twenty years ago, so I stopped doing strategic planning with organizations and started doing something similar to what Dr. Burke calls Beyond Strategy. Dr. Burke, the Program Director for Mt. Eliza Executive Education at Melbourne Business School, describes Beyond Strategy as “the facilitation of free flowing fruitful conversations that recreates the constraining themes, norms and values of a group’s identity and at the same time allows emergence of difference and innovative change. Essential in this is the personal narrative exploring our own identity — a reflexive methodology.” I had to travel to the other side of the world to do it, but I’ve finally found someone in academics who concurs with our purpose-based approach to personal and organizational development. Dr. Burke says, “Anticipatory action learning can be seen as an inner search for meaning and purpose as a futures experience through a search for a preferred future.”
The key words in that statement are meaning and purpose. When we help organizations plan for the future we engage them in a process that paints a really big picture (along the lines of what Dr. Burke calls Beyond Strategy) — and then help them focus on the most important thing in that picture — purpose. What is the purpose of this organization? That’s where people find meaning. People want and need to identify with a common purpose that is collectively bigger than their individual selves. They want to be partners in a cause. Then they must see how their pieces of the puzzle (the individual’s own unique purpose) fits into the big picture of the organization’s purpose (what Dr. Burke calls the personal narrative exploring our own identity).
OK, leaders listen up. Dr. Burke says the reason organizations do strategic planning is to reduce anxiety. That’s interesting isn’t it? It doesn’t work but it makes us feel better. “All planning is about the future,” says Dr. Burke, “so to do the planning as an act of leadership leads to incorporating purpose and meaning for what it could be our preferred future promises.” Dr. Burke and I had a good visit after our presentations and agreed that our philosophies are congruent but I told him what’s sad is that few leaders “get it.” That’s because management has believed that the future is about numbers (the strategic plan) instead of purpose and meaning (preferred future promises). Well, the events of the last few weeks should serve as a wake-up call. The old approach has led us to where we are today. To paraphrase Dr. Phil, how’s that working for us?
The results don’t lie. The time has come for a new approach. I believe the world is ready.
2 thoughts on “Road Signs For Success – October 15, 2008”
Fully agree with you about not just planning by numbers, but to say:
“The reason organizations do strategic planning is to reduce anxiety”
sounds strange. Can you name some companies that believe that?
And the “new” planning based on “purpose” ….. how is that different from the traditional, classic, and best (Porter) planning concepts about “positioning”?
But thanks for your interesting article; it’s something to think about.
Alan S. Michaels, President
Great point, Alan.
I think organizations do strategic planning in the traditional sense because they have been conditioned to believe that that it works and it is what they are supposed to do. If only 5-10% of these plans are ever implemented however, then 90-95% of the organizations that do it are simply making themselves feel better for completing the exercise (reducing anxiety).
We engage the organization in a process that takes them a generation into the future and asks them to describe what the world and their industry looks like. Then we ask what they would have to do if they were to become the model organization of the future they described. Once distilled, the retrospective narrative they compose will include the elements of their purpose, operating philosophy, business model and organizational structure and culture. This process is along the lines of Steven Tighe’s (another speaker at the conference in Australia with Robert Burke and myself) Strategic Foresight process — working back from the future, as opposed to projecting forward from the present.
To tie it back to Robert Burke’s comments about meaning and purpose the process I described above is part of our approach to personal and organizational development which revolves around this fundamental principle of human behavior: “Without a purpose our only motivation is reward and punishment.”
People today are searching for two things: 1) the opportunity to fulfill their own unique potential (defined as Self-Actualization by Abraham Maslow) and 2) the opportunity to contribute their potential to something bigger than themselves (what we call Team-Actualization). People want and need to identify with a common purpose that is collectively bigger than their individual selves. They don’t want to be employees, they want to be partners in a cause. Then they must see how their piece of the puzzle (the individual’s own unique purpose) fits into the big picture of the organization’s purpose.
Thanks for your response,