The Change Agent’s Dilemma: Planning in a World that Keeps Changing

For the last dozen years, I’ve devoted my career to strategic communications planning, having developed and applied the Results Map methodology in the field. I’ve had the opportunity to work on hundreds of strategic plans – large and small, for the public and private sectors, all focused on aligning internal and external communications to organizational goals. From the vantage point of the relatively stable discipline of strategic communications planning, I’ve been struck by a stubborn reality of applying these tried and true techniques to the field of change management. The trouble, of course, is that when you’re working on a change project, things keep changing all the time!

While this truism may seem obvious, it manifests itself in all kinds of challenges and frustrations when trying to nail down an elegant strategic plan, in the face of a chaotic and constantly evolving environment.

So what’s a strategic planner to do? How do you develop a sound road map for action, in a landscape where the markers keep moving and you’re working in quick sand?

Some of the world’s great thinkers in strategic planning have tackled this very issue, and have come up with sage advice.

“No plan survives contact with the enemy.” – Helmuth von Moltke, Chief of Staff of the Prussian Army

Strategic planning is anchored in military practice and tradition. It is noteworthy, then, that the cautionary counsel to recognize that no plan survives contact with the enemy, should come from the decorated military strategist, Helmuth von Moltke.

The observation is a sound one, and provides a good reminder to change agents that even the most sophisticated strategy will be won or lost upon implementation in the field. That’s where the dramatic tension lives between the clean, orderly world of strategy, and the messy, chaotic business of implementation.

This point of intersection is increasingly being recognized as critical to strategic planning, particularly in the field of organizational transformation. Mario Moussa of the Wharton School of Business argues that, “Strategy is 5% concept, 95% implementation”.

The consequence of this interplay between strategy and implementation is that we need approaches that build on the discipline and clarity of strategic planning in ways that are balanced with the dynamic real-world environments where our strategies will be deployed.

From the military perspective, this is achieved through the concept of the Commander’s Intent – the commander focuses on establishing and communicating the goal of an operation (such as “take this bridge”, or “secure this specific area”), leaving the troops with enough flexibility and empowerment to execute that mission in whatever way makes most sense in the actual situation.

The Commander’s Intent concept translates well to modern-day management practices where research demonstrates that teams perform at higher levels when empowered to do so. This is borne out by the rise in Emergent Leadership, Complexity Theory as well as the application of Positive Psychology in the workplace. It is also a useful model in the development of organizational change plans that are flexible enough to respond and capitalize on changes in internal or external environments.

 The take-away here is that often, the most valuable approach to strategic planning in a context of organizational transformation is to crystallize the “What”, and then create the conditions for teams to be empowered and encouraged to develop the “How”.

 “In practice, of course, all strategy making walks on two feet, one deliberate, the other emergent.” – Henry Mintzberg

In his classic essay, Crafting Strategy, McGill University’s Henry Mintzberg makes the compelling case for striking a balance between learning and control in strategic planning. Mintzberg uses the metaphor of managers as craftsmen, and strategy as their clay. He suggests: “No craftsman thinks some days and works others. The craftsman’s mind is going constantly, in tandem with her hands. Yet large organizations try to separate the work of minds and hands. In so doing, they often sever the vital feedback link between the two.”

Mintzberg’s model of embracing both the deliberative and emergent dimensions of strategic planning is particularly well suited to organizational transformation. Rather than adopting the classically rigid definition of strategy stemming from the military tradition, he invites us to remain open and flexible to “strategic learning” – the iterative interplay between planning and experience, between the stable and change states. Through this dynamic, patterns eventually form, and become stronger by virtue of being informed by experimentation, and rooted in real-world experience.

As change agents, we are wise to acknowledge Mintzberg’s deceptively simple observation: “[…] There is no such thing as a purely deliberate strategy or a purely emergent one. No organization—not even the ones commanded by those ancient Greek generals—knows enough to work everything out in advance, to ignore learning en route.”

Guidance for Strategic Planning in Change

As change practitioners, how do we translate these insights into practice?

A few suggestions:

  1. Plan for flexibility. The value of strategic planning is often in the process, rather than the resulting document. Set up a planning process that builds-in flexibility. This can be done through a governance model that includes regular check-ins on how the plan is progressing, and what course corrections should be made.
  1. Measure, learn, refine. Measurement is always an important part of strategic planning. However, it’s particularly vital in the case of organizational transformation. A laser-like focus on performance measurement helps provide the directional clarity organizations need, while enabling the adaptive flexibility needed to respond to changes in the environment. For example, if a transformation project is focused on enhancing customer service, metrics on service performance provide clarity on “which way is North”. Teams can then adapt their approaches to achieving that outcome based on the actual realities of the internal and external environments.
  1. Cultivate a culture of continuous improvement. A pre-condition to enabling an environment where emergent strategy can work is that employees and managers must be encouraged to experiment and take risks. Critically, this must be demonstrated consistently through actions at the executive level, not just words. The most successful organizational transformation initiatives depend on a culture that is open to testing models, piloting new business practices, and evolving approaches based on the identified best practices and lessons learned.