Friday, May 11, 2007

Is it strategy yet?

Do you remember the wonderful old TV commercial for instant chicken noodle soup? The one in which the adorable little kid, with the big shining eyes, says to the mom, “Is it soup yet?” I suppose we were meant to be reminded that soup was so delicious that it was hard for the kid to wait even the 10 minutes it had to cook. But did it ever really become soup? The list of ingredients on the package reminds us that it was nothing more than a stew of chicken flavored chemicals – barely a distant cousin to the kind of chicken soup that came from Granny’s kitchen where the chicken was allowed to stew all day in a pot with celery, onions, and carrots!

Strategic planning is all too often approached as if it were instant soup: We know we need a plan so let’s sit down and write one up.

The resulting document may be a list of important action items, a statement of intentions, or a description of the way the organization hopes it is seen by outsiders. But it is rarely a useful Strategic Plan, steeped in the deeply held values of the organization.

In a very early post, we noted that virtually every organization has a strategy, even if the organization has never articulated it. It is the implicit commitments that drive all of its members actions, and choices, and processes. It may or may not be productive; it may or may not take best advantage of the organization’s resources; it may or may not help it accomplish what it means to accomplish. But it’s there, underlying everything that happens.

The reason to undertake a formal strategic review and planning process is to bring all of these implicit guides to light, to examine them, and to make deliberate choices about which to keep and which to change.
The choice to engage in such a process often comes about because there is a sense that things could be better – a sense that some change may be needed if the organization is going to be its very best.

No change comes to any organization over night. There is no button to push, no rule to be written, that will enable it to be essentially different on Wednesday than it was on Tuesday – or even in July than it was in June.

Like any complex organism, an organization generally maintains an equilibrium – a set of habits that allow it to function with a minimum of effort. Aspects of this equilibrium state will often be immediately apparent to outsiders: Some people in the organization will almost always allow others to speak before they say anything; some may insist on having final control of certain kinds of assignments; almost everyone will use references and a jargon that will be completely understood by others in the organization but indecipherable or misunderstood by anyone who doesn’t live there.

Many of these habits will be completely hidden to the people in the organization. Their invisibility can make it difficult for the people who share them to examine them and assess their value. Even when the habits have ceased to be useful, and even get in the way of achieving the organization’s goals, they are just part of the air the organization breathes. In effect, when a hot idea threatens the comfortable intellectual climate of the organization, certain behaviors will kick in to cool it down and protect the equilibrium.

We all know the story about the frog and the boiling water: if you drop a frog into the water when it’s boiling, the frog will leap out. If you put the frog in the pot when the water is cool, however, the frog will heat with the water and never notice the changes.
Creating a real plan for an organization – a plan that is imbued by the best of the organization’s values and ideals, and permeates the organization’s culture and daily activities – is a lot like making a really good frog soup: It needs to be done in a way that doesn’t feel abrupt and allows all of the flavors to steep and mingle.

Although the plan itself is a useful outcome of the process, the learning that takes place during the process often has far greater permanent value. And if there were such a thing as Instant Learning, no one would ever make the same mistake twice!