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.