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May 26, 2017

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May 26, 2017

‘I don’t need a Plan, I need a better Radar’ – how can we rethink Strategic Planning?

May 26, 2017
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I was in Washington this week helping the International Budget Partnership think about its future direction. There’s5 go on a strategy awayday a certain rhythm to these exercises – some research on external trends, consultation with partners and staff, maybe bring in some outside facilitators, then sit down and say ‘so what should we be doing differently?’ These days, there is often an initial session on complexity and systems thinking, but I’m starting to recognize a pattern – the implications of that initial session are largely ignored as we default back to theories of change, accompanied by lists of priorities and activities, culminating in a more or less conventional ‘Strategic Plan’, which then disappears onto the shelf/into the folder, never to be seen again until the next Strategic Planning process.

It’s too early to say if IBP will go down this route, but I was struck by one comment from Albert van Zyl, IBP’s battle-hardened South Africa director: ‘I don’t need a plan, I need a better radar’. So what might a Strategic Radar look like? Here are some thoughts to get the comments flowing:

  1. Who is ‘We’?

Strategic Vision: the kind of world we are seeking to build/support. This should encapsulate the values that get people out of bed and into the office every morning, inspiring them to soldier on, in spite of setbacks and annoyances. It could also include some ‘big hairy audacious goals’ for changing the world, and some guiding principles for how we work.

Rules of thumb: the kinds of heuristics we employ in our daily work, which reflect the born organization’s identity, direction and values. According to Ben Ramalingam, the US marines have 3 such rules in combat situations: ‘stay in communication, take the high ground, keep moving’ and then improvise the rest. My candidate for Oxfam’s rules of thumb would include questions like ‘who gets what?’ (i.e. power and distribution); ‘what’s the impact on women?’ and ‘what do local people, organizations and partners say?’ Interesting that we never acknowledge, identify or critique those rules of thumb – maybe we should.

  1. Theory of Change

dilbertstrategywordI am now convinced we should routinely distinguish a theory of change from a theory of action (discussed below). A ToC is about the system, not about us. How do we think the system is changing on the issues we care about? Writing that down will surface our assumptions about the way the world works, which can subsequently be tested/revised in the light of experience

  1. Theory of Action

Now it’s time to talk about us. What contribution do we think we can make to bringing about change, and how will it work? Again, assumptions that are usually implicit can be dragged into the daylight, exposed to scrutiny and experience, and revised.

Strategic Process: I am becoming a big fan of the ‘searchframe’ proposed by the Building State Capability crew. As an organization you need to be clear on how you intend to work ‘going forward’ as management types say. That tells staff what to expect, and reassures potential funders. The searchframe combines that assurance with a commitment to being adaptive/responsive to context, by saying ‘here’s our plan for the next X months, then we will step back and review what has/hasn’t worked, revisit our stakeholder and power analyses, ask what new opportunities/threats have emerged and come up with a plan for the subsequent X months. That will be repeated every X months in the life of the project.’ A Strategic Process would set out in advance how often you intend to step back, how you would do so (all staff or some? External facilitators or internal?)

But some commitments and initiatives require years of commitment up front – helping local organizations buildwhat happens to strategic plans their capacity for example, so a Strategic Process would have to include some longer timeframes too.

Partnerships strategy: the kinds of organization and individual you will be seeking to work with over the next few years.

But go easy on the diagrams. Our conversations only increased my scepticism about the diagrammatic version of theories of change/action, which seems increasingly de rigueur. You know the kind of thing – lots of boxes and connecting arrows that aim to show that we know how it the system works, and have clever plans to influence it. The diagrams might be useful when you’re drawing them up from scratch – thinking about the way the organization works, the way the different bits fit together, but once on paper the diagram too easily becomes tyrannical, especially for new arrivals who had nothing to do with their creation – a thought deadener that drips linearity into our thinking and ignores at least two crucial areas: change dynamics – unpredictable critical junctures, windows of opportunity etc that in practice play a central role in many change processes, and people – the relationships, wisdom, judgement that will almost inevitably determine success. Maybe we should have Theories of Change diagrams that self destruct in 10 seconds, a la Mission Impossible?

  1. Operationalization

What does the organization need to put in place to get started and keep learning and adapting as th work develops?

Strategic investment: Capacity follows money, and you would need to set out how you intend to spend money differently, what new skills you want to bring into the organization (e.g. power analysis and political smarts), whether you need new areas of operation etc.

Strategic opportunism: How is the organization going to put in place the skills to recognize new windows of opportunity (‘Fortune favours the prepared mind’ Louis Pasteur) and the systems to respond to that recognition, e.g. by moving money and people in rapid response to new openings (as we do, say, in emergencies)?

This checklist has got a lot longer as I’ve run it past people at IBP and the facilitators, MAG, and is starting to feel a bit cumbersome. It may be that a particular strategic planning exercise won’t need to include all the pieces, but I’ve tried to nail down those elements that will still be relevant in 6, 12, 18 or 100 months time, rather than languishing unread in the planning file.

Any thoughts? Chip in and it may help IBP try something a bit different this time. Whenever I come up with something like this, someone usually says ‘old wine in new bottles’ and/or ‘we tried that in the 1990s – it didn’t work’. Still, got to keep plugging away, eh?



  1. Great blog Duncan. It also feels to me like heavy, wordy strategies are no longer the answer in a ‘VUCA’ world. When I was facilitating a country strategy process I remember one colleague saying to me that she felt we were trying to ‘play God’ by analysing and defining the context even though the context had changed in the short period since our analysis had finished.

    I think that one way forward is to focus on zones and sweetspots. One can use trends, context analysis and foresight, SOT, etc to define ‘zones of engagement’ rather than silo’d areas of work. E.g.

    Geographic/demographic zones could be urban, youth, conflict-affected areas, women.
    Thematic zones could be strengthening livelihoods, supporting citizen voice, promoting women’s rights
    Emerging capability zones could be use of ICTs, hyper-transparency, convening multiple stakeholders, multi-polar lobbying

    The strategy is about engaging in the sweetspots namely those places where more than one zone coincides. Sweetspots guide decision making and encourage much more of a ‘radar’ approach. It is not as neat but it does provide a very real focus while allowing for flexibility.

    The second point about strategies is that I feel the primary way by which to assess the quality of a strategy isn’t by judging the quality of the document but by gauging how deep is the understanding and commitment to the change by those who will make it a reality – or who won’t. .. which is also where rules of thumb and big, hairy, audacious goals come in handy. The strategy is what is lived not whatever clever document gets written.

  2. No surprises that this post interested me. But if you take a vision, rules of thumb, a theory of change and a theory of action etc are we not right back to something as clunky and removed from practice as a strat plan?

    1. Yep, this is what worried me as the elements started to multiply. Maybe this should be a la carte – you select which items from this menu you actually need for your organization, and avoid the rest?

      1. Your comment made me think of something else. Perhaps there is further challenge beyond just the ‘fit’ between strategy and reality. Its pretty human to simply forget your plans (ask any new year’s resolution). Basing our plans in realism and knowledge would solve some of the problem. But not all of it. Maybe some of the attractiveness of rules of thumb is that they are easy to remember and apply.

        From this I wonder whether there should not be a strategy/ToC/ToA whatever that sits behind these Rules of Thumb (surely the Marines got their rules from some research or reflection?). So the strategy itself can be as long and complicated as need be. But after that initial work is done, it should be boiled down into a very small number of simple and straight forward rules of thumb – in order to help bridge the always present risk of simply forgetting the strategy.

        PS I finally got copy of your book (blush) and started reading over the weekend.

          1. That does go to Duncan’s point about doing a ToC (or ToA) diagram and then throwing it in the trash. Really it is the process of working through the thinking that is important. But maybe we should extract a rule of thumb or two before the diagram hits the bin!

            But I was also reflecting on how radically different rules of thumb for a relatively straight forward (though complicated) process for which success is relatively objective (a military operation) versus for engaging in social and political change processes (Oxfam or IBP’s work). In other words, the rule of thumb questions that Oxfam asks itself (and partners) won’t necessarily suggest what Oxfam should then actually do, right?

  3. in terms of rules of thumb for Oxfam, I find “where are the women?” asked at every step of the process works better than “what is the impact on women?”. “What is the impact” directs our attention to the end-line and could lead us to overlook women elsewhere. So for example, if we ask “who gets what?”, we need to add “and where are the women?”; with “‘what do local people, organizations and partners say?’ we need to add “where are the women?” when we are asking for the opinion of others (and women’s organizations and do we have women’s organizations as partners?). Then we can go on to: why are they there (or not), how are they there, where else should they be, etc.

  4. Interesting thoughts! Meanwhile, what you describe as “Strategic Process” has long been developed, framed and described as the “quality improvement” or just the “improvement” methodology. Simply put, it consists of a series of “Plan-Do-Study-Act” (PDSA) cycles, during which a change is planned, implemented, assessed, and the decisions are made as to further actions. These cycles are repeated as many times as the changes are necessary until the improvement goal is achieved. See for more detail.

  5. This is a most worthwhile conversation and is greatly appreciated. It also feels like a semantic loop. “Indeed, the whole nature of strategy making — dynamic, irregular, discontinuous, calling for groping, interactive processes with an emphasis on learning and synthesis — compels managers to favor intuition. This is probably why all those analytical techniques of planning felt so wrong. … Ultimately, the term “strategic planning” has proved to be an oxymoron.” –Henry Mintzberg 1994.
    The fact is that funders what a plan – despite the fact that they already know it will inevitably be over budget, take twice as long and, by the time it gets to the end the goal-posts will have moved. The real issue is that the essential cost of – learning by doing / learning from mistakes/ adapting in the field – all the things necessary for a project – are simply not tolerated. This seems to be the real reason we find 100 page strategic plans translated into elaborate logframes – with a whole column of assumptions proving we are already anticipating failure and the excuses!
    Is it not time to treat development work like a military operation. Agree the vision (goal), envision the results that must be achieved (the strategy), identify the outcomes that will show decisive progress, and define the available resources – and then trust the people in the field to develop their tactics (plans) to solve or adapt to problems as they arise. Even Mike Tyson new that “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” The key is not better strategic planning it is better evaluation and tactical flexibility.

  6. Hi Duncan,
    I like your admonition to “…routinely distinguish a theory of change from a theory of action…”. I can also appreciate Albert’s statement, “I don’t need a plan, I need a better radar.” While the official party line on Theories of Change is that they are living, flexible documents meant to readily change to accommodate new and emerging realities, too often they are used as tools for verifying causal linkages (much like the infamous logframe, only marginally better as a visual illustration tool), and then shelved. Strategic plans can often be too “fluffy” to the point of being operationally irrelevant or too “into the weeds” as to become obsolete as soon as its published because of the constantly changing environment in we work. Its interesting that you mention the Marines. One of their key priorities is always situational awareness – what I believe Albert is referring to with his statement about a “radar”?

    Makes me wonder if we might do a better job of elevating our M&E folks to higher, more strategic-thinking levels for more up-to-date information monitoring to inform strategic objectives and actions…rather than relegating them to monitoring individual programs and evaluating their “success” or “failure”. Somehow, we have to figure out a way to keep our rows straight while ploughing our fields.

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