I was in Washington this week helping the International Budget Partnership think about its future direction. There’s 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:
- 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.
- Theory of Change
I 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
- 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 build 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?
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?