Strategic planning

Once in the late 1970’s I was on a commercial airline flight here in the United States. The passenger next to me spoke with a distinctly foreign accent. “Where are you from?” I asked. “The Union of South Africa,” he said.

“What are you doing in the U.S.?” “Looking for a job,” he replied.

“Why look for a job here?”

His answer surprised me on several levels. “My business is long-range strategic planning for multi-billion-dollar corporations,” he replied. “In that planning, you make the starting assumption that the host society is stable. In the Union of South Africa [referring to its apartheid of the time], this assumption is so unrealistic that my work is without meaning.”

In the 1990’s when apartheid came to an end, I thought of my traveling companion. In fact, I still think of him often, even today.

Why? Because today, in the year 2010, no society is stable in the sense he was using the term. Social change and technological advance of all sorts are pervasive worldwide. They are also so rapid, complex, and significant that big corporations and government agencies, indeed nations, cannot hope to stay relevant by doing more of the same, only with greater efficiency. So whenever you and I see a strategic plan of the older sort, replete with detailed short-term, intermediate-term, and long-term goals, extending out, to say, twenty years, we might be wise to be a bit disbelieving.

Unless, that is…the plan focuses on the development of attributes.

What might some of those attributes be? Here’s a candidate list of five.

Nimble. In an era of rapid change, slow-moving, ponderous, inflexible institutions are in grave danger. At the time my fellow traveler was making this observation, many large companies, obsessed with market share, were bulking up, even as their profitability declined. Today, just decades later, few of these companies are still with us. Think Pan American Airlines, LTV, Greyhound, Texaco. You get the idea.

Perceptive. Picture yourself crossing a busy highway. You can be as nimble as you want, but if you can’t see and hear the traffic, your chances of getting across unscathed are virtually nil. Today’s institutions and their leaders need to be obsessively interested and insightful about the direction the world is taking.

Adaptive. Despair, Inc publishes a line of beautiful posters under the label Demotivators. One of my favorites is entitled Doubt. The subtitle reads “In the battle between you and the world, bet on the world.” Fact is, no matter how big our cause or concern, chances are good it doesn’t measure up in some larger scheme of things. We’ve not only got to see the direction things are tending, but act accordingly.

Useful. You and I can be as nimble, perceptive, and adaptive as we want, but unless we’re also useful, we’re likely to be thrown to the curb. And the flip side? If we’re useful, we can be lacking/deficient in other respects, and still survive.

Viral/catalytic. Sometimes the nature of the challenge requires that you aspire to achieve results on a massive scale. Then, in a world of constrained resources, you might preferentially give up all thought of control, and instead seek to set events into motion that become self-replicating, that take on a life of their own.

In a way, that is how the AMS Policy Program seeks to operate. We’re small and are likely to remain so. Yet we have big goals. We want to make people safer and keep them healthy in the face of natural hazards; foster economic growth in weather-sensitive sectors of the economy such as agriculture, energy, and transportation; protect the environment and ecosystems; contribute to geopolitical stability; and so on. So we focus on building capacity: equipping early-career scientists to be more effective in the policy process, keeping policymakers on Capitol Hill abreast of advances in the science, and using our convening power to bring together scientists, policymakers, practitioners, journalists, and educators together to discuss issues and find common ground. It seems to be working.

Strategic planning? Has that ring of motherhood and apple pie, doesn’t it? Few criticisms are more damaging to leaders and institutions than “they lack a strategic plan.” But before you spend too much time detailing one, think about the social context in which you’re operating today, and how unpredictable it is on all except the shortest time horizons.

As someone said, “Happy people plan actions; they don’t plan results.”

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