Does Strategic Planning Make a Difference?

August 9, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

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.

Delores Ambrose model
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.

August 9, 2019
Duncan Green