Strategic Planning as C-Suite Taylorism

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What would a strategic planning function look like if we designed it in a manner consistent with the principles of modern information worker process design?

I’ve been reading Henry Mintzberg’s The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning of late.  It’s been a bit of a slog, primarily because I’ve been trying to read it on flights (which puts me to sleep) or at my daughter’s roller derby practice (which causes the other parents to mock me mercilessly, despite my protestations that reading a book like that at roller derby practice reflects the duality of man… you know, the Jungian thing).

There’s an interesting thought presented very early in the book that has caused me to reflect a fair bit as I deliver various presentations on strategic planning.  The basic concept is that strategic planning is really an example of Taylorism (otherwise known as Scientific Management) applied to the C-Suite.

A quick sojourn into the world of Taylorism:
This is the concept that all work can be broken down into a series of manual steps.  This work is performed by workers at the rubber-meets-the-road tier of the organization.  The workers are then watched by the supervisors, whose job it is to ensure the workers follow the agreed upon procedures.  The supervisors are implementing the procedures defined by the manager class – who by dint of their intellect and college education are qualified to develop the procedures that trickle down.  The entire thing these days (and in some sectors in particular) smacks of the Eloi – Morlock dynamic, but in all fairness brings a fascinating perspective to the operating theories underpinning many modern organizations.  In fact, I might propose that most organizations I’ve worked with ostensibly reject the concept of Taylorism while simultaneously building the structures to support it.

Anyways, in a net-centric, information worker type organization, an alternative model has arisen – that of the empowered worker understanding the primary problem to be solved and then working independently or as part of the self-directed group to push the goals of the organization (you can read my past musings on this here and herethis post discusses Yammer’s role in enterprise project management.)

Mintzberg’s book points out, though, that attempts to “processize” the strategic planning, well… process, have repeated the same structure, but this time pushed it upwards into the C-Suite and with a mechanism to review goals from last year, adjust, and issue a new plan for this year. The artistry of planning has been replaced with a rote set of processes that must be followed at a specific cadence.  We see that with the emerging prominence of two distinct project portfolios:

Reactive Portfolio Proactive Portfolio
  1. Collect the list of requests for the next annual plan.
  2. Prioritize these requests.
  3. Perform constrained optimization.
  4. Release to execution.
  1. Define the long term goals and investment areas for the organization.
  2. Decompose the goals to develop a project portfolio leveraging the principles of enterprise architecture.
  3. Prioritize the project portfolio.
  4. Perform constrained optimization.
  5. Release to execution.

In the first portfolio – the reactive one – we simply have to collect all of the requests from the organization, run them through an analytical hierarchy that was defined per some other set of formal processes, and we have a portfolio.  In the second portfolio, the proactive one, we swap out the sensing mechanism of order taking with one that is a bit more proactive, i.e. mapping fundamental strategic change to the scope of the projects in the annual plan.  Regardless of which portfolio you support, the general premise however is that, if we follow these two approaches to the letter, we will have success in our strategic planning.

So the question now becomes, if Taylorism has been widely rejected in many information worker organizations, and if strategic planning is merely Taylorism writ large, then what would a rejection of Taylorist strategic planning processes look like?  Well, it might look a lot like decentralized program or asset based planning.  Specifically, funds would be allocated to the asset in a flexible manner based off a prioritization matrix that identifies the importance of the asset and how well the asset is meeting its target performance.  (See this post on the program as a benefits management framework.)

Each asset would then be owned by a specific individual, a program manager, who would be responsible for allocating funds to best guarantee the asset meets the needs of the organization.  The prerequisite for this to work?  A clear definition of where the organization would like to go – and how each asset supports that definition.  Note how this structure meets a clear need, that of transferring ownership of the project and the defined initiatives to the teams responsible for doing the work.

That is what a strategic planning function would look like if we designed it in a manner consistent with the principles of modern information worker process design.