Planners in organizations set out with the intention of affecting the future in ways that are organizationally beneficial. The same can be said about those leading and facilitating change. And it is the comments on "affecting the future" in my 1980 paper on organizational planning that I want to focus on here -comparing and contrasting these with my current thinking on the dynamics and facilitation of organizational change (see footnote).
On many occasions in this blog I have referred to the writing of Peter Drucker, much of it stretching back to the 1950s and 1960s. Many of his remarks still resonate strongly today. And Drucker's insights feature prominently in what is a relatively short chapter in the 1980 dissertation. Interestingly, I used Drucker to illustrate my current thinking on 'time' and change - and its relationship to Ralph Stacey's notion of the "living present", in a mid-2008 post on this blog (The time machine of organizational decision making).
Pleasingly, then, there were few surprises when I re-acquainted myself with this section of the earlier paper.
- Extract #33 – Understanding that decisions exist only in the present, and yet can't exist only for the present.
" All decisions, whether taken carefully or negligently, after lengthy deliberations or with expedience, will affect the future success of the organisation. It is essential, therefore, that their futurity - how far into the future they commit the organisation and how fast they can be reversed - be fully understood:
'Long-range planning ... does not deal with future decisions. It deals with the futurity of present decisions.' (Drucker P. F., 1970, Technology, Management and Society.)"
Although earlier extracts from the paper recognize that there is much in organizations of which managers are necessarily partially or totally ignorant (see, for example, Facilitating change #6 - Dealing with uncertainty and complexity), there is a greater sense of knowability in this discussion of futurity than I would concede today. Phrases such as "fully understood" are examples of this. As I've mentioned many times in the blog, managers can act with intention but can have no certainty as to the outcomes that will emerge in practice.
- Extract #34 – Seeking to stimulate processes, perspectives and attitudes that facilitate more reflective and insightful decision making.
"In helping line managers to develop its plans and to make specific decisions, the planner should strive to create the processes, perspectives and attitudes necessary for them to do effective planning and decision making. ... (specialist) planning should make it possible for the manager to commit resources today with a greater awareness of the future implications of the decision."
Here again, greater certainty and assuredness is implied by some of the wording than I would be comfortable with today. I've reflected this to a degree in the wording of the related 'extract' on facilitating change. Here, I've chosen to use the phrase "seeking to stimulate" rather than "striving to create". I've also placed the emphasis on the intention to "facilitate more reflective and insightful decision making" (i.e. a focus on the in-the-moment process) rather than, as in the original, to suggest that the effectiveness of decision making (i.e. the nature of its outcomes) can be determined and/or outcomes controlled in some way through intervention in the planning process.
The "effectiveness" of a particular intervention, or whether or not a specific approach "'works", can only meaningfully be judged after the event. Even then this will be a matter of social construction rather than fact. It will be based on people's varying perceptions, interpretations and evaluations of what's happening, and on the extent to which particular themes come to dominate the official (and shadow-side) conversations.
The awareness raising that is mentioned in the original text is another important aspect of the facilitation role - both, as referred to here, the decision maker's (line manager's) but also the facilitator's. Again, though, the phrase "awareness of the future implications of the decisions" is a bit stark. More important (and realistic) perhaps is seeking to achieve greater awareness of the assumptions and dynamics that are affecting current sense making and action taking, as a basis for ongoing action.
- Extract #35 – Raising awareness that change does not happen according to artificially imposed time frames – whatever “the plan” might say!
"It is important to realise that the question 'How far ahead should our planning go?' cannot be answered in general terms and the organisation's thinking should not be blinkered by procedures which call for formal plans to be produced [to a set timescale]."
This same line of thinking challenges the often obsessive pursuit of detailed plans and programmes as the route to organizational change - even (or in some cases especially) in relation to the way in which change communication is supposed to happen. It recognizes that specific organizational outcomes, in terms both of their nature and timing, emerge from the messy and unplannable dynamics of everyday organizational interaction. Actively engaging with these dynamics is the essence of change leadership (and change facilitation) from an informal dynamics perspective.
It is also important to understand that there is no beginning or end to organizational change. It is an ongoing process in which, as Stacey would say, the future is being perpetually constructed in the present.
I have one final point to make in relation to the original extract. Today, I would try to avoid using a phrase such as "the organisation's thinking". Organizations don't think. People do. I'm sure that that is what I meant at the time, and that I was only using this as shorthand. However, talking of organizations as "living systems", and implying that these presumed entities have agency beyond that of the individuals within them, has become a well-established way of describing organizations from a "systems" perspective. The informal coalitions perspective does not adopt a systems viewpoint of organizational dynamics; it sees organizations instead as complex social processes of people interacting together.
This is one of a series of posts that draws extracts from a 1980 paper on the nature of the specialist planning task in organizations. The challenge is to see if and how this might relate to the view of organizational dynamics that is embodied in informal coalitions. More of the background can be found in the initial, context-setting post: Re-membering the past – The seeds of informal coalitions? Extract numbers follow on from those in earlier posts in the series.
Earlier posts in the series include: