Tasmanian Times

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. No price is too high for the privilege of owning yourself. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. No price is too high for the privilege of owning yourself. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

Bruce Ransley

The barenaked truth about strategy documents

*Diagram: Zeke never did take too kindly to bad strategy documents. Credit: Diagram by Glen Baxter

First published March 4

Here are some ‘objectives’ I randomly plucked out of three current government strategic plans. You know the type of document: the one that sits on the department or organisation’s website to demonstrate that they’re on the ball and forward thinking. It’ll be apparent that it’s a strategy document because it will have the words ‘strategic plan’ in the title.

They read like this.

• Develop and implement a stakeholder strategy
• Identify and implement infrastructure improvements to enhance road safety
• Leadership provides for informed decision making
• Take a leadership role
• High-level strategic intervention
• Strong national and international relationships
• An enriched visitor experience
• Deliver best-practice customer service across the organisation

Even at first glance I could tell that all three of my chosen strategy documents took quite a lot of effort and quite a long time to produce. Each has professional graphic design (the designer usually gets a plug on the inside-front cover). Each has a list of acknowledgements that tells me the consultation process was very long and needed lots of input from lots of folk. The forewords from VIPs promise that this wonderful strategy is now the cornerstone of endeavour for the department for the next 10 years (or words to that effect).

Now imagine you’re one of the people for whom the strategy was prepared. It doesn’t matter who you are or what field you work in, just imagine that you have an interest in the subject on which the strategy was written and you’re looking for some advice from the gurus who apparently know about such matters.

What the fuck do you do first?

It’s 10.30am on a Tuesday and you’ve just put on your special implementing hat, ready to get down to business. How do you begin ‘taking a leadership role’?

What’s the first step in implementing a stakeholder strategy?

When you deliver best practice customer service, what should you be wearing?

It’s like your beloved partner has written you a shopping list for the way home from work. You get to the supermarket, open it up, and it says, ‘Make sure everyone in the house has enough to eat into the future’, or ‘Ensure adequate nutrient count while keeping costs at a minimum’.

In a segment called How to do it, the Monty Python team once explained how to rid the world of all known diseases. First, they said, become a doctor and discover a cure for something. Then when people take notice of you, you can make sure they do everything right and there won’t be any diseases ever again.

It doesn’t really matter which industries or sectors my list came from. I’m certain that whatever area you work in you’ve seen a near-identical one somewhere deep in your own governance policies. Is your organisation’s goal ‘best practice leadership’? Are your corporate values ‘integrity’, ‘professionalism’, ‘relationship building’?

I bet I’m not far off.

It’s kind of refreshing to note that at one time, global megalith Pepsi had a goal that was elegant in its simplicity:

Beat Coke.

Now there’s an objective you can hang your hat off, albeit one that’s not especially useful if you’re the guy sitting at his desk on that particular Tuesday morning tasked with implementing the strategy.

Although it’s admirable to say ‘we want people to quit smoking through increasing awareness of the adverse health impacts’, in itself that is not a strategy.

The invasion of Normandy on D-Day was a strategy. What Monash did in WWI was strategic too. Neither the allied leaders nor Monash stopped work after ‘Launch an offensive with coordinated resources and overcome the enemy’.

Of course, you could stop me there and say that the kind of document I’m griping about is just the first step. That there are teams of people out there now working on the nitty gritty, based on the plan.

And there are good people doing good things out there. I’ve met lots of them. They’re talking to real people, spraying weeds, digging holes, planning hospital wings, picking up rubbish, distributing food. I just wonder a) whether they needed an expensively-produced strategic plan to help them do that, and b) how much of the departmental resources they received relative to those it took to develop the strategic plan.

In every industry we’re constantly told to ‘evaluate results’, though it seems the large-scale project that is the development of a strategy document is exempt from this step. Of course you can draw pie graphs of how many stakeholders were engaged, or how many tens of thousands of dollars were allocated, or how many hectares of weeds were controlled. But that is not an evaluation of the strategy. That’s just a measure of what happened during the year.

A true evaluation of the strategy itself would be, so what changed as a result of our producing this document? How many people read it? How many of them did something they would not have otherwise done, thanks to your guidance? To claim that the results of your day-to-day work activities (# weeds sprayed, # wars averted …) was the result of the strategy document is an insult to the people on the ground who, to put it simply, probably know how to do their fucking job, thank you very much.

To take it further, was the strategy set up in the first place with such an evaluation mechanism in place? How are you to know if the time spent developing the strategy was worth it? Just because the chair of your board gave everyone a pat on the back at the launch doesn’t mean the damn thing had any effect.

And after five or ten years of living with our strategic plan as some kind of organisational cornerstone, what do we do? We update the strategy, mainly so that now instead of reading ‘Strategic Plan 2010–2015’, it reads ‘Strategic Plan 2015–2020’.

Pats on the back all round, let’s hold a press conference.

The primary beneficiary of such an undertaking is, in the vast majority of cases, the graphic designer who’s been engaged to make the document look nice.

Non-divisible barriers

A strategy, usually, involves someone doing something, probably something they weren’t already doing. Perhaps in concert with someone else, or perhaps they’re merely required to adopt a desirable behaviour (or cease an undesirable one) all on their own. There is an action that needs to take place.

But what is that action? Stop smoking? Start walking to work? Prevent the spread of the Northern Pacific seastar?

Personally, I’m getting a little tired of pseudo-psychological terms like ‘identify barriers’ and ‘implement change’, mainly because the people I know who use these terms don’t seem to understand them. In the same way that ‘establish strong leadership’ is not a strategy, we struggle when it comes to determining the real actions that need to happen in order to make something happen.

We tend to make false assumptions about what needs to happen. We just know, from the bottom of our heart, that if only we can only increase awareness about the benefits to our health of walking to work, or stopping smoking, or consuming less sugar, then the health crisis will be averted. In fact, awareness raising has been shown time and time again not to work. Not in the slightest. Yet it seems to be the starting point of every campaign, whether it be environmental or about personal health.

Flood people with as much persuasive information as you can muster, if you like, but I’ll guarantee you that very little will change. You might engender a bit of shock or horror, but very few of the rest of us will act in any meaningful way. (The government knows this very well, of course. They love it when they hear of an awareness campaign against them. It means they can relax.)

A Canadian gentleman named Doug McKenzie-Mohr has done lots of research that continually shows that flooding people with information is very near useless. Instead he suggests digging a little deeper to identify the real barriers that prevent people from adopting a ‘desirable’ behaviour. We must identify the specific behaviour or action we want to change, then identify the barriers (or benefits) to that change.

He says that the behaviours you identify must be non-divisible. You should not be able to break up the desirable behaviours or actions into sub-actions.

‘Install insulation to reduce household energy consumption’ is a divisible action, and therefore not terribly helpful, because the barriers against installing ceiling insulation are different to those for installing wall or floor insulation. I can poke some Charlie Fluff into my ceiling cavity, but to do my walls I’ll need an expensive contractor.

Nor is it enough to say that ‘we want people to eat healthier’, because there are too many sub-behaviours in the mix. For someone to eat healthier a few things have to happen. First, they need access to healthy food (i.e. close by in their neighbourhood); they need to be able to afford to buy that food; they need to know how to cook it; and they need to want to do all this stuff instead of ordering a pizza. The barriers to healthy eating are complex and many, so simply making fresh food more easily available is only one piece of the puzzle.

Unfortunately, I suspect that there are a couple of reasons that most strategy documents do not carry useful, direct actions one can take to get the job done.

1. The authors don’t know enough about the subject to suggest any useful real-world actions.

2. The authors do know, but they’re not prepared to write specific suggestions lest someone take those suggestions on board and they don’t work. The more you get prescriptive, the more likely it is that you’re setting yourself up to fail. If you say that your goal is to ‘decrease the price of apples by 10% across all our stores within six months’, and then you don’t, you have literally failed. And failure doesn’t help your advancement prospects, hey.

Please, grow a pair. A strategy document should be a useful thing. It could actually help your people, your stakeholders, your community to do what has to be done, in clear, measurable steps.

*Bruce Ransley is Director of Impress: clear communication. He’s a technical writer and strategy adviser.

EARLIER on TasmanianTimes by Bruce Ransley …

Head in the sand …

Author Credits: [show_post_categories parent="no" parentcategory="writers" show = "category" hyperlink="yes"]
11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Chris Harries

    March 6, 2017 at 10:05 am

    Personally I believe the business case for the cable car means that the Pinnacle road would eventually have to be closed at The Springs, though that would be sprung later on.

    This likelihood needs to be accepted by both the proponent and adversaries. The proponent could use it as an argument that the cable car wouldn’t add environmental harm. The adversaries can argue that the citizens of Hobart would be forced into paying to go to the pinnacle – or not go if they can’t afford to.

    But the proponent will also need to accept another hard fact. Studies on the impact of climate change on snowfields predict that Australian mountains will receive no consolidated mountain top snow by 2050. Kunanyi (Mt Wellington) already receives very little winter snow if the past decade is a guide.

    The cable car business case needs to accept this realty. No snow capped vistas. Just wind and rain when fronts come by.

  2. Robin Charles Halton

    March 6, 2017 at 1:03 am

    An explosive issue that the State government is about to legislate is its support for a mt Wellington cable car.

    I believe that the hobart City Council via Mayor Sue Hickey have too showed their support.

    This could be a real test case for the Hodgman Government as so far there is no organised opposition to stop the project from developing.

    So what is going to happen singular voices crying from the wilderness, another protest from the disliked Greens and their usual rent a crowd supporters.

    I tell yo what my belief is there is a wider audience that will stop the mountain from being defaced as we already have a perfect road to the summit which is easily accessible most of the year.
    When the road is closed due to bad weather then it would be unsuitable for Cable Car.

    Cable car could well become a political nightmare for the State government as the average citizen around town could see red, do you believe me, wait and see!

  3. Simon Warriner

    March 5, 2017 at 9:01 pm

    A longish time ago I put together a submission to something environmental around access to tracks in the NW on behalf of the Braddon 4WD Club. It came after several years of various bodies repeatedly surveying the public opinion, with the obvious intent of getting the answer they wanted rather than the one they kept getting.

    I pointed out then, that the prospect of consultation fatigue came with it the very serious likely-hood that the “authorities” doing the consulting would eventually be ignored and/or overtaken by events on the ground as they were abusing the public’s goodwill and well on the road to looking incompetent and irrelevant.

    I see others are catching on. It has taken a while.

    It is what you get when you let party politics dictate the direction taken by the public servants. We wind up with dithering inaction and monumental scale waste. Of all the lost potential benefits of Tasmania Together the most grievous was the lost opportunity to set an overall strategy based on real public input and force the politicians to focus on tactics for implementation of that strategy, with the electorate judging performance and likely-hood of success for proposed tactics at election time. That would be so much more edifying than the spectacle we are treated to at present

  4. Bruce Ransley

    March 5, 2017 at 6:17 pm

    Hey Chris. I’ve seen a few iterations of the climate strategy. Every time I think of how much work goes into them I die a little.

  5. chris Harries

    March 5, 2017 at 5:57 pm

    Good Phil (#6),

    Local government action on climate change generally beats the pants off the state government’s performance. In the present climate national and state politics is almost a waste of space.

    Problem is that local government is often inhibited in what it is able to do because there is virtually no lead taken at state level and often overt inhibition. This is so often the case with transport planning, for instance, where state government tries to ride roughshod over local government attempts to make our cities more people friendly.

  6. phill Parsons

    March 5, 2017 at 5:26 pm

    #5. Not this little chicken, he has experienced too many lies by liars.

    Not to say I don’t point out what we need to do.

    Doing things to reduce emissions, it’s that simple.

  7. Chris Harries

    March 5, 2017 at 12:04 pm

    Hi Bruce, do look out for the state government’s long-promised ‘climate strategy’.

    This has turned out to be a grand farce of epic proportions.

    Every since 2007, when Paul Lennon (I believe with good intent) initiated some processes for the state to deal with the climate change issue, every subsequent state government has drafted a brand new ‘climate strategy’…. only for each one to be ditched, in turn, at the change of government.

    So now we are up to our 5th Tasmanian climate strategy and – like the other ones – this new one is being announced and published in the months leading up to the next stage election. Therefore, once again, it can’t be acted upon before that administration retires.

    A state election then takes place and the much vaunted climate strategy will once again be turfed out and the incoming next administration will then start anew, call for public feedback on the next new draft.

    The upshot is exactly as you describe, Bruce. A repeated exercise in shallow pubic relations that has no other outcome.

    (The funny thing is we take it all seriously. Each time around we write our serious submissions, albeit with a galling sense of deja vu.)

  8. Robin Charles Halton

    March 5, 2017 at 10:26 am

    There is nothing surer than an increased dose of Pauline Hanson following State elections and of cause the Federal election as our astute leader Malcolm Turnbull continues to attempt to lead the Coalition to some sort of victorious conclusion by the end of their fast approaching term in government.
    I am doubtful as a divided party the Coalition will achieve its goals.

    Dont underestimate the power of Pauline in the lead up to the next Federal election.

    WA state elections in three weeks, Qld state elections in May (correct me if I am wrong), swings to Hanson are high on the agenda, voters want governments to be accountable to the masses to keep Australia in our hands.

    Sharp changes to Immigration excuses policy overall including sales of Australian properties to rich overseas buyers will be high on the Hanson agenda in order to protect all of us from continued national exploitation.

    Dont bother voting for the waivering Greens and their Labor Mates who have no agenda to protect the national interest.
    Bill Shorten is a complete dud.

    The Coalition will probably find itself competing with more House of Representatives candidates from established “Independent” parties to make up a new Federal government consisting of sharing the spoils in order to protect the national interest first and foremost.

    You’ve been told!

  9. Claire Gilmour

    March 4, 2017 at 9:11 pm

    I always like to firstly read articles like this from the top down – as you do, but then read a couple of times from the bottom up (paragraph per paragraph) which often makes more sense and gives true insight. Try it, it will make understanding clearer. Insight to reason, rather than the other way round.

  10. Bruce Ransley

    March 4, 2017 at 6:57 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Jill. it does seem to be the case now that a high-level plan is the end of the line. Box ticked. Depressing, huh?

  11. Jill Koshin

    March 3, 2017 at 4:12 pm

    Thank you Bruce for putting it into words. What came to mind straight away are the writings and weasel words we have been subjected to from the University of Tas as they talk up their planned moves away from existing campuses – transforming lives, transforming cities, revitalisation, critical challenges, responding to needs, integrated, embedded blah, blah blah, all without a shred of substance, let alone any academic rigour.

    The worse part of it is though that political parties, including the Greens, have fallen for it all. Maybe they’ve been blinded by the glossy publications and the pie graphs. Maybe they need to read earlier Tasmanian Times articles by Ben Lohberger plus comments to be able to see through that particular Utas ‘strategy’, that any amount of blah blah blah does not justify any campus relocation in Launceston. Might go and read Bruce’s and Ben’s articles again, because they are spot on.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To Top