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Strategic planning in uncertain times

April 18, 2009

I recently gave a presentation regarding strategic planning models highlighting the role of OD and what the function could contribute toward building a sustainable competitive advantage for an organization. I pointed to the value of OD coming to the table as a partner in such initiatives and gave examples of what such contributions might look like within change processes. I identified OD as being adept at making a contribution toward increasing the intellectual capital of the organization, facilitating change, and proactively building the organization in alignment with the business’ objectives all while effectively leveraging the organization’s resources. The common theme in current business climates (while not new to OD practitioners) is “Do more with less” and that’s not likely to change any time soon.

During the Q&A section of the presentation I was asked which strategic planning model for OD purposes would work in a highly-volatile market where a great deal of uncertainty is looming. The answer is obviously not a “one size fits all” affair and the choice of model, I explained, would clearly depend upon the culture of the organization and where the leadership intended to take the business. As a consultant I would consider the fact that many people are in a state of fear and therefore inert due to their uncertainty. Presently, all change management initiatives must be approached with a different level of awareness of employee engagement levels than in previous endeavors. My recommendation would be to conduct focus groups and listen before constructing any type of strategic framework (time permitting).

Organizations are experiencing an extraordinary amount of upheaval and as Mintzberg and Westley (1992) pointed out “to [attempt to] change culture without change[ing] structure, systems, and people or vision without positions, programs, and facilities, would appear to constitute an empty gesture – a change in thinking with no change in action” (p. 41). While that statement doesn’t seem odd or unique, consider how many change initiatives undertaken during relatively stable business conditions have failed because specific actions were not taken to “unfreeze” behaviors (as Kurt Lewin pointed out) in order to predispose them to new behaviors.

Learning theory tells us that when people are afraid or defensive they are less likely to be able to learn new behaviors or skills. Special attention must be paid to what works and what doesn’t with regard to change, otherwise the followers won’t be able to see or hear the leaders’ message and vision. The best strategic models for uncertain times will incorporate an indispensible element: listening. Without the ability to listen, even the stealthiest model will fail to produce a payoff. Truly integrated strategic change that leads to a sustainable competitive advantage comes from a central philosophy of understanding and hearing the people involved. Without listening, any strategy is a non-starter.

2 Comments leave one →
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