Strategic Planning as C-Suite Taylorism

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*).

There’s an interesting thought presented very early in the book that has caused me to reflect a fair bit as I’ve been delivering presentations on strategic planning over the last couple of weeks.  The basic concept is that strategic planning is really an example of Taylorism as applied to the C-Suite.

A quick sojourn into the world of Taylorism…..otherwise known as Scientific Management: this is the concept that all work can be broken down into a series of manual steps.  This work is performed by the 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 then implement 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 smacks somewhat 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 structure 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.  (See posts here and here…..and this post on Yammer’s role in enterprise project management.)

The  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 removed much of the art of strategic planning by replacing it with a mechanism to review goals from last year, adjust and issue a new plan for this year.

Attempts to implement strategic planning processes have removed some of the artistry of planning, and replaced it 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 flexibly to the asset 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.


*…despite my protestations that reading a book like that at roller derby practice reflects the duality of man…you know, the Jungian thing).

Strategic Planning as C-Suite Taylorism

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