Does Strategic Planning Make a Difference?

Blimey, here’s a blogpost from former Oxfam GB boss Mark Goldring, written in response to a tweet of mine, repeated below. Pleased to see that someone takes my social media seriously.

“’@Oxfam’s published its evaluation of its 2013-19 Strategic Plan. Some +ves: ‘one lesson rises to the top: we must learn how to continuously test & review our theories of change’, but at no point does it ask, ‘what is the impact of having a strategic plan’”

Duncan Green, FP2P, 30 July 2019.

So, does strategic planning actually make any difference?

Recently Oxfam International published a review of its performance in delivering its strategic plan. The question that Duncan raises, possibly with that wry smile that tells you what he thinks before he has finished the sentence, is not what difference Oxfam has made but what difference having the plan has made. In encouragement to all those now shaping new plans, here are a few reflections.

Strategic planning in the international development sector is certainly challenging and complex. Having led such processes for both domestic and international organisations, the range of places in which international organisations work, the very different stakeholder contexts, a greater sense of power and hierarchy in many communities, distance, language, literacy and many other factors make efforts to consult, listen and make decisions complicated indeed. In their efforts to be inclusive, many organisations find that even planning the process, leave aside the conclusion, is an elaborate, expensive and contested activity. And the intensity and emotion of extensive consultation processes can too easily mean that opinions heavily outweigh evidence in eventual decision making. Result? Lashings of fudge to make sure there is something in the final version for everyone.

But my major challenge is less with the preparation, more with what happens in finalising and implementing such plans.

The best plans are short, simple and accessible. They reflect an understanding of the evolving context but don’t try and predict the future. Rereading the 2013 Oxfam plan, you’d never have foreseen the rise of new Right governments, the level of concern on climate, and so many other big challenges to business as usual. Neither were many of the most significant internal changes foreseen or planned for. That’s just life – “events dear boy’ disrupt every plan”, as Harold MacMillan famously observed.

A good plan will be clear on how the organisation believes change happens, but doesn’t  list everything an organisation believes in and would like to happen; that leads to long, uncosted wish lists, masking the big commitments that do need to be made.  

For the plan to have impact, readers, especially staff, usually the most interested stakeholders, need to come away clear on two things:

 1. What the organisation’s values mean in practice – in other words what criteria should underpin all decision-making at all levels. (not unlike the “rules of thumb” described in this 2017 FP2P article post. And:

2. The specific focus for the future. In particular, the real choices and changes in direction. This gives everyone in the organisation the signals they need.

The plan needs to set this direction and be confident how to resource it. Then leave the detail to be developed in supporting documents, which can reflect and change with circumstances.

Even when, after massive consultations and every word being contested, negotiated and redrafted, the plan is agreed, we are only at the beginning.  We need to put the same effort into the next steps, not just in promoting the plan but in developing the action plans, applying, adapting, resourcing, upskilling, monitoring and updating it over time. Only then would I be confident that it will be more than a worthy description of beliefs and aspirations.

The most difficult but important thing a plan needs to address, whether in the main text or in a clear, honest accompanying paper, is what activities are going to stop. Many plans lack impact because they are too much of a Christmas tree on which everyone can hang their baubles. They too readily allow rebadging of old activities with new labels, or they only deal with expenditure at the margin, thus under-powering new commitments.

The combination of long term donor funded commitments, and the totally proper desire to be respectful of existing partnerships inevitably also slow implementation, so that initial enthusiasm dissipates. Progress can also be undermined by those who might believe in the plan, but not at the expense of their own priorities. Speaking personally, I have struggled with what to stop more than any other issue in planning. And, while apparently respectful of great work and good people involved, that’s done no one any favours.

We need to more forcefully contrast our modest scale with the almost unlimited breadth of what we could be doing. The comment that one external reviewer makes in the Oxfam evaluation that “Oxfam struggles to match its large programme ambitions to the realities of too few resources and too short time frames” is true of every organisation I have been involved with.

The hybrid bottom-up/top-down nature of most development organisations creates a tension that runs through planning and undermines implementation. Most organisations pride themselves on their country offices’ responsiveness to local needs and demand; but without a very strong and ongoing process to build a shared understanding and oversight, careful editing of the existing portfolio can make most things fit the new framework, and we all carry on as before.

Where the organisation is an international network like Oxfam, whatever the model adopted, the complications of aligning resources are much greater than in a unitary structure. All the more important to tackle resourcing head on. Money is inseparable from power, even among altruists. A plan that relies purely on its intellectual rigour and emotive power to drive implementation, without backing it up with cash, staff and accountability will eventually leave its staff and partners frustrated and cynical. It is vital to explicitly recognise who controls what resources and agree how they will be brought behind the commitments.

The elements that need to be aligned to answer Duncan’s question are well described in a 30 year-old diagram.

The Delores Ambrose model of managing complex change

If only we put as much work into the four columns on the right as we do into the two on the left, we would implement our internal change agenda far more effectively. Without this alignment, all the talk about how we are going to change the world remains rhetorical.

Each of the elements of the diagram, and others not in it, need careful attention over the long term, notwithstanding needing immediate resourcing to get started.

Plans shouldn’t be all new, and so won’t change an organisation in themselves. They should pick up the best of the old and give a push to good ideas already being developed or tested. Their directions will often gradually work their way through the systems over time. But unless we are as serious about the many dimensions of their implementation as we are about the consultations that help shape them, grand strategies will always be more of a descriptor than a driver.

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11 Responses to “Does Strategic Planning Make a Difference?”
  1. Excellent, thoughtful, sensible – thanks! And agree in particular with the last point about putting as much time into the action elements as the vision elements. So easy and comfy to live in the stratosphere, so hard to put numbers and bodies and actions in place!


      Scenarios don’t predict the future – they are potential futures with a significant degree of uncertainty. Good scenario planning may play in a variety of ways (i.e. the level of change may be incremental to transformative). And obviously understanding the truism that the future will always play out differently to how you envisaged it. Building a resilient organisation that can cope with Black Swan events.

  2. Interesting what you say about changes in direction. It implies that the people at the top have a ‘destination’ in mind. So to get there, everyone in the organisation (or network) needs to travel together. Or else they get left behind, a form of exclusion, which can provoke a lot of difficult feelings amongst staff (and which talks to your point of stopping activities which don’t fit with senior management priorities). But setting directions also suggests that those promoting strategy think they are in control of what’s going on across the network….

  3. Carol Hatchett

    I always admire and respect Mark’s views and this is no exception. Totally agree with most of it, especially about deciding what to stop doing, and investing as much in implementation as we do in planning and visioning. I do also though agree with Greg’s comment above – of course unforeseen events disrupt every plan, but we should still look ahead for trends and risks.

  4. Wise words – I once suggested my organisations strategic plan should be a haiku – maybe that’s a bit far-fetched but short and clear and value-driven, definitely. So many strategic plans end up full of fine words with staff left to interpret them as they like or unsure about what is expected of them. The crucial pieces for me is being clear about what our values mean in practice – what will be the basis of our decision-making – and then vital that leadership at all levels practises and role models this and enables everyone to do this. And, of course, what will we stop doing and, crucially, why – being firm about this but managing it in a way that is respectful of what has already been done.

  5. Robin Stafford

    Thoughtful and pragmatic observations, surprisingly enough true for most kinds of organisations and sectors. Development is is more extreme compared to other sectors in that one is trying to tackle particularly difficult problems, with minimal resources and far more stakeholders.
    Which comes to Marks point that the tough decisions are about what NOT to do. Its too easy to be drawn into trying to too much and being ineffective at most of it. Trying to find space for all the baubles on the Christmas tree as he puts it. That could be an argument for becoming much better at working with other organisations who may be better positioned to take on those other challenges. Partnerships between organisations has not been a great strength in the sector to date, with honourable exceptions.

  6. DB

    Q. Does strategic planning make a difference?
    A. “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable” ~ Eisenhower

    As others have said, a thoughtful and honest article – especially the point about stopping activities rather than simply piling on more.

    However, a couple of thoughts about planning for an unknown future. The MacMillan quote is pertinent, albeit that I prefer the rather more striking (pun only half-intended) phrasing of the poet and philosopher Mike Tyson: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”.

    It is forgivable that Oxfam may not, at the beginning of this decade, have anticipated the rise of the Right (although not noticing a concern for the climate in 2013? Really?! But that’s another topic). It is equally forgivable that all organisations currently planning for the future will almost-inevitably miss events that turn out to be the defining features of the next 5-10 years. What should not be accepted is a shrugging of the shoulders and a resignation that “well, we know the world will change, but this is the best we can say for now so we’ll do this and revisit in 2024”.

    At this point I should say that I’m not putting forward the above non-quote as a paraphrase of Mark’s argument, and I realise that the article includes lines such as, “We need to put the same effort into the next steps, not just in promoting the plan but in developing the action plans, applying, adapting, resourcing, upskilling, monitoring and updating it over time.” I agree entirely. What I’m clumsily trying to add to this is that part of the plan itself should be about clearly defining how all these integral steps will be appropriately undertaken.

    The old-school model of planning for a changing context was to plot possible events on a graph of ‘likelihood of occurrence’ vs ‘potential impact’, and then develop management response plans for the ones that fell under a Gaussian bell curve. Events located outside of the bell curve were considered to have too low a probability or too low an impact, and so weren’t worth their own scenario plans. And then people like Trump get elected, and Brexit is voted for, and Crimea is annexed, and we say “well, this was so unlikely that we couldn’t possibly have planned for it, so it’s not a flaw in the plan”.

    By contrast, the Nobel-winning physicist Philip W. Anderson noted that, “the real world is controlled as much by the ‘tails’ of distributions as means or averages: by the exceptional, not the commonplace; by the catastrophe, not the steady drip”.

    The odds on Leicester winning in 2016 were apparently 5000/1, and I’d say you’d have been a fool or a time-traveller to have put your house on those sorts of numbers. Offer me the same ROI on a bet that “an event of similar improbability will happen somewhere in the world in the next five years”, however, and I’ll bite your arm off (and you’ll be bankrupt).

    By the same logic, an organisation that says “the future is unknown, but this is our plan and we’ll adapt if necessary” will always be on the back foot compared to one that says, “the future is unknown, but it’s guaranteed that we’ll have to adapt to whatever it is and so this is our plan to do that as quickly as possible”.

    What then are needed are strategic plans that proactively set out to find ways in which contexts are changing, rather than just ones that are ‘flexible enough’ to be changed when they get punched in the mouth. Responsive management, rather than management responses.

    Let’s put it in more familiar terms. Readers of FP2P are, I like to think, broadly comfortable with ‘development programmes’ being situated in a complex space: the world of systems thinking, problem-driven iterative adaptation, theory-testing and feedback-looping and all the rest of it. Whether or not any programmes are actually ever run like that, or whether it’s just what we all have to chat in order to win funding and secure profile-enhancing spots on industry discussion panels (before drafting another three-year logframe based on a simple results chain that fits neatly on one PowerPoint slide), the point stands. We know (or “know”) that individual programmes don’t progress along linear paths even within fixed local geographies, but then we attempt to manage global organisations as if an annual income target for FY2023 is worth the paper it’s written on.

    Systems-thinking strategists would at this point argue over whether the world follows the Gaussian model or whether the events that matter occur more in line with a Pareto distribution (which would mean the old bell curves underestimate the probability of high-impact events). In practical terms, I really don’t think it matters.

    Some things we can agree are “probable” (or at least quite likely, if we know something is going to go one of a finite handful of ways – e.g. we’ll get a grant that we’ve bid for or we won’t). We can use tried-and-tested approaches to decide what scenarios to plan for and to develop those plans. But if we stop there then we miss the world-changing event that’s round the corner, and if we try to adopt the same approach for every possible event then we never finish the plan (“what if DFID’s leadership are hit by a bus?”, “what if Africa adopts a single currency?”, “what if somebody wins a nine-figure sum on the lottery and gives it all to us?”, “what about aliens?”).

    The solution seems to me to be the same as what (I think) this blog usually advocates for at programme-level: rapid feedback loops; regular and intentional processes of reflection, learning and unlearning; nil-hypothesis abductive reasoning to explore connections between events; and a change in focus from trying to predict outcomes to trying to sense problems and opportunities as early as possible.

    Have I added anything that Mark hadn’t already said? Maybe not, but at least now it’s lunchtime.

  7. Mark Goldring

    Thanks all for your comments. I certainly accept Greg’s challenge. To set a direction you have to try and understand the world you expect to be living in and the forces that you are likely to be working with and against. I most definitely wouldn’t encourage ignoring or neglecting these. But we all seem to enjoy this part of planning more than the question of what these scenarios, or the many variations on them, should mean for us. We need then to regularly revisit how we seek to realise our aims, adjusting to the world as it actually does evolve.

  8. I too find Mark’s observations on strategy spot-on. To add one more element, that reinforces his point about being focused on the last four of the columns: if it is not clear to staff how their organization will be different in X years time (by the end of the strategy period), in terms of role, programming, type of people needed to execute the strategy, systems and processes and habitual behaviors that need to underpin the strategy (i.e. culture), then the organization has not done enough to operationalize the strategy. People have to be able to visualize this.

  9. Gareth Price-Jones

    Excellent blog, thanks Mark. Very much agree with Tosca’s comment about the need for people to be able to visualise how the organisation will look different – structurally, culturally, budget, people etc.

    I’m less worried than Mark about asking ‘what to stop’ because that’s been a major feature of every strategic planning process I’ve been part of for decades. What I do worry about is the way the question is answered – too often it results in hacking off of key capacity other parts of the plan rely on, and feeds into a downward spiral of specialise-reduce-specialise-reduce until you lose a lot of your relevance. Its worth noting that the private sector shifts between ‘focus’ phases where they divest and streamline the business and ‘growth’ phases where they add complementary new product lines, businesses and income streams. In the International NGO sector my sense – though I’m open to challenge on this – is that we tend to ignore this second deliberate new-growth phase.

    An example – in the late 90’s (and while working for Oxfam) I was a big opponent of Oxfam’s UK poverty program – it seemed a case of empire building and a diversion from Oxfam’s core business, and a distraction for already-stretched managers. However, much of Oxfam’s work on inequality grew from that program, and my view now is that it was an excellent strategic move. Sometimes doing something new and additional can add huge value to the whole.