People and Strategic Planning

Vic Napier

 

The prevailing model of strategic planning begins with the formulation of vision and mission statements, goes on to internal and external analysis, then the development, refinement, implementation and measurement of objectives, and finally, the importance of starting the process over again. 

One thing is conspicuously absent from the strategic planning process– exactly how people figure into it!

Without people any business or organization just an abstract concept that represents little more than a few tangible assets.  Even when business books include human beings they are treated as a non human entity, best defined by financial statements and various objective analyses, instead of psychological or sociological concepts.

Robert Lawrence Smith, a leading Quaker business thinker says this about the people who work in business:           

“The working force is made up of a number of individuals each having a personality different from the rest. They are sensitive as we are to encouragement and discouragement, as easily aroused to anger and suspicion, to loyalty and to effort. One may deal with things without love; but you cannot deal with men without it…”[1]

That’s what this is about – infusing flesh, blood and human spirit into the strategic management process.

 People Principles and Organizations

Textbooks tells us that a mission statement is “a declaration of an organizations ‘reason for being”, and that a vision statement “answers the question ‘what do we want to become?”[2]

That’s fine, but a huge component is being left out – the people who comprise the organization -- the “we” in “what do we want to become”.  Do people automatically adopt the values of the mission statement?  Can values and attitudes be changed simply by a show of hands in yet another meeting?  Can managers agree on vision and mission and then lobby employees to hop on the bandwagon?

That’s how it’s done at some companies, and it doesn’t seem to raise many eyebrows.  Here is how Jon Katzenbach describes how Enron addressed employee dissatisfaction in his award winning best seller, The Wisdom of Teams:

“To remedy the situation, the senior management group developed what they called a ‘Vision and Values’ program. The vision was to make Enron into ‘the first natural gas major’ and ‘the most innovative and reliable provider of clean energy worldwide for a better environment.’ The values, aimed squarely at converting employee discontent into customer-oriented employee involvement, included ‘Your Personal Best Makes Enron Best’; ‘Communicate-Facts Are Friendly’; and ‘Better, Simpler, Faster.’”[3]

Senior managers who drafted the updated missions and visions were then sent out to tell workers about the new values systems that were going to cure their unhappiness.

This episode is not just an example of how successful business people fail to recognize basic facts about psychology and leadership, but also how authors of best selling leadership books can do the same thing.  Based on this incident, both the Enron executives and Katzenbach would be comfortable with Fredrick Taylors’ 19th century era Scientific Management philosophy which produced the idea that, “…foremen were cast as the ‘brains’ who did planning rather than actual operations, workers came to be seen as little more than ‘a pair of hands’”.[4]

Not all business thinkers are so archaic and condescending when it comes to leadership issues.  The current guru of vision and mission statements, Steven Covey, says that “...to be effective [mission and vision statements] must come from within the bowels of the organization”, not just as edicts from top management.  “Everyone should participate in a meaningful way…” Covey says, because mission statements “that truly reflect the deep shared vision and values of everyone within that organization creates a great unity and tremendous commitment”.[5]

That sounds good, and I’m in total agreement…but what if the shared visions and values the employees agree upon is in conflict with that of the owners and managers?  The results are easy to find – just look at labor union history.  Unions owe their existence to employees refusing to accept corporate vision and mission.  There has got to be more to vision and mission statements than dredging the existing “shared vision and values of everyone” who happens to be in the organization.

 

Values are Hard to Change

Think about the last time you and your co-workers debated where to go for lunch.  Now consider the process of getting large groups to agree on political party platforms, or religious values.  Quick and easy agreement rarely comes out of such gatherings, and it’s such a rare and painful process that historians study the occasion and preserve it for posterity. There is just too much difference between individuals to expect agreement on such basic things as values to be easy or fast.

The thing that academics like Covey ignore is that people have very different values from one another, and they hold on to them very tightly.  Gathering together a random group of individuals, even from the same organization, and getting them to agree on fundamental values that underlie their collective vision and mission is near to impossible. 

 

Values = Culture; Culture = Behavior

When we start talking about values and vision and mission we are really talking about culture.  Culture springs from shared values, beliefs and attitudes, and transforms groups of individuals into a homogonous group.  Vision and mission statements attempt to create a culture that determines collectively predictable behaviors.  We want to be assured that employees answer the phone before the third ring for example, or greet customers with a smile and a ‘may I help you?’  Covey advocates the use of vision and mission statements to alter existing culture in a way that benefits the goals of the business or organization. 

The obvious shortcoming of Coveys approach is that discussions, meetings and democratic adoption of a vision or mission statement never create or modify existing culture and change behavior.  Behaviors are not changed that easily.   If it were, people like Steven Covey would have eliminated the culture that breeds criminal behaviors by now and we’d all be safer and richer.

Here is how Gareth Morgan describes the enormity of the challenge of changing corporate culture in Images of Organization:    

‘…the challenge of creating new forms of organization and management is very much a challenge of cultural change. It is a challenge of transforming the mindsets, visions, paradigms, images, metaphors, beliefs, and shared meanings that sustain existing business realities, and of creating a detailed language and code of behavior through which the desired new reality can be lived on a daily basis. Viewed in this way, the creation of a particular corporate culture is not just about inventing new slogans or acquiring a new leader. It is about inventing what amounts to a new way of life.’[6]

Fitting into Organizations

In the last twenty years or so the economy has been transformed.  Our economy is no longer driven by giant manufacturing industries that make tangible goods.  Production lines and factories are things of the past.  And so are many of the ways we think about jobs.

In the business environment of today every new employee has to be productive from the very first day.  There is no longer such a thing as “on the job training’, or “transferable skills”. [7]   The level of competition between companies has heated the competition between applicants to such an extent that employees must “fit” in an organization in the same way a mechanical part must fit in a machine. 

What do we mean by employees “fitting” into an organization?  Proper fit goes far beyond traditional KSAs, (Knowledge Skills and Abilities).  It includes things like personality, attitudes, and deeply held beliefs – the kind of things that contribute to personal vision and mission. 

What we mean by “fit” is matching the personal values, vision and mission of potential employees with the values, vision and mission of organizations.  This is not just a short term trend.  Business people are becoming ever more demanding of the “right fit” -- the compatibility of the values of new employees with the existing culture established by old employees.  There is enough demand for assessing employee characteristics that a whole new industry is being built to assist both organizations and individuals in finding the right match.  Googleing “job fit” returns over 13,000 hits, mostly from organizations offering assessments to determine good matches.[8]  

“Great Vision Without Great People Is Irrelevant”[9]

So how does one go about creating a culture that supports the goals of an organization?  We know it’s possible because there are organizations that have done it, but it is a lot more difficult than what we are usually led to believe.

One element is missing from the process found in business books.  Indeed, this element is missing from most of the texts I’ve read about strategic planning, team building and vision and mission.  It’s one of those hard truths that we try to avoid in an effort to keep everyone happy, to “empower”, and to “respect”.

The hard truth is that not everyone is cut out to be in every organization.  Nor will everyone in an organization will be capable of accepting new directions, visions and missions.  The first step in strategic management is simply hiring people who already have values and ethics consistent with the organizations vision and mission statements. 

The secret to building an effective strategy is getting the right people

There is no formula for finding the right people, or even a definition of the qualities of the right person.  The right person is the right match for the characteristics of the organization.  The “characteristics of the organization”, of course, simply refers to culture.  The idea of finding employees who “fit” has been around for quite a while, but is rarely applied in a systematic way to long term strategic planning.

In the recent book, Good to Great, Jim Collins examined the factors that contributed to exceptional long term growth.  It seems that companies that have recorded long term success start their strategic process by finding the people whose personal vision and mission compliments that of the people, (and consequent culture), already in the organization. 

The Changing Scene

By hiring the right fitting people first, and then allowing them to develop vision and mission statements, the companies cited by Collins were able to concentrate on effective and innovative strategies instead of selling vision and mission to an existing culture that may or may not be receptive to it.  As Collins puts it, “They hired self -disciplined people who didn't need to be managed, and then managed the system, not the people.”[10]

Fred David, the author of Strategic Management Concepts, finds it “…surprising that so often during strategy formation, individual values, skills and abilities needed for successful strategy implementation are not considered.”[11]

The real surprise is that those individual values, skills and abilities are not addressed at the beginning of the strategic planning process.  Given Collins findings in Good to Great, the real surprise is that these human qualities were not taken into consideration before the beginning – that is, throughout the entire process.  

And that’s the way I see it.


 

References


 

[1] Smith,  Robert Lawrence, A Quaker Book of Wisdom, Eagle Brook, New York New York 1998. p132

[2] David, Fred, Strategic Management Concepts, Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle river, New Jersey, 2003, p59-60.

[3] Katzenbach, Jon, Wisdom of Teams The, Harper Business, New York, New York 1993. p.113

[4] Osland, Joyce, The Organizational Behavior Reader, Pretence Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey           2001. p27

[5] Covey  Steven, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Fireside, New York, New York 1990 p139, 143

[6] Morgan, Gareth, Images of Organization: The Executive Edition, Sage Publications Thousand Oaks, California 1998.  p136

[7] Napier, Vic, A Few Words About the Economy, http://www.vicnapier.com/JobsandEcon/Orientation.htm

 

[9] Collins, Jim, Good to Great, Harper Business, New York, New York.     2001 p42

 

[10] Collins, Jim, Good to Great, Harper Business, New York, New York.    2001. p125

 

[11] David, Fredrick,  Strategic Management Concepts, Pretence Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey 2003 p263

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