This marks the end of the series of posts themed around the topic of facilitating change. It focuses on the final phrase in the definition of specialist planning that prompted the series (see footnote). This suggested, uncontroversially perhaps, that the aim of planning is to help bring about results that are “in line with the organisation’s objectives.”
The phrase was meant to underline the normative purpose of planning, which I saw to be to “contribute purposefully” to the management of the organization by “increas[ing] the probability” that the desired objectives would be achieved. In a footnote, “objectives” were described as “the desired future conditions which the organisation strives to achieve”. To offer further clarification, these future conditions were said to include “mission, purpose, ethos, strategy, charter, goal, policy, target, quota, programme, deadline, etc.”
Today, I would try to avoid any implication which might suggest that an imaginary construct (“the organisation”) can in some way “strive to achieve” things. But that apart, how (if at all) does this focus on organizational objectives stack up with my current, informal coalitions view of organizational dynamics? And what pointers might it offer to the facilitation of change?
I guess that my initial response on re-reading the paper was “hardly at all”! But, perhaps, that was a little harsh.
It is true that there is much in this chapter that, 30 years on, would still pass as conventional management wisdom: providing clear direction; looking to achieve organization-wide cohesion; and enabling progress to be tracked and success to be measured. There is also reference to the need for planners to establish “the preferences of the various [‘internal’ and ‘external’] groups” whose actions affect organizational performance, so that these can be “reduced to a meaningful whole”(!). And there are even a couple of references to the need for “perfect integration of the means-end chain” within and between departments.
Thankfully, there are also a number of challenges to the assumptions of certainty, predictability and control that one might otherwise infer from these various references. For example, the credibility of securing this supposed ideal of a “perfectly integrated means-end chain” is dismissed as “impossible to achieve”. Drawing on Herbert Simon’s classic work, Administrative Behaviour 2Ed. (1959 - now in its fourth edition) the reality of inter-departmental competition, personal biases and value conflicts are highlighted.
"Simon points out that the [means-ends] chain is seldom integrated and completely conneced:
'Often the connection between organisational activities and ultimate objectives is obscure, or these ultimate objectives are incompletely formulated, or there are internal conflicts and contradictions among the ultimate objectives or among the means selected to attain them.’"
The paper also identifies two other gaps between this idealized world of "coherent means-end chains" and the down-to-earth reality of everyday organizational life. These relate to the nature of goal setting, and to the risk of confusing activities with outcomes.
- Extract #42 – Not being seduced by the false concreteness of easily quantifiable goals and performance measures.
“[There is often] an overemphasis of quantifiable goals and an under-emphasis of more abstract, less easily measured objectives. Frequent measurement tends to encourage over-production of highly measurable items and neglect of less measurable ones.”
Viewing organizations as complex social processes, in which outcomes emerge from the complex interplay of ongoing, local interactions, brings the whole panoply of established concepts, tools and techniques of performance measurement into question. So this acknowledgement of the difficulties in conventional practice in the original paper is welcome.
- Extract #43 – Avoiding the “Activity Trap” in which the activities set out in change plans, programmes and projects often become seen as ends in themselves.
“The procedures and activities specified as means to achieve broader ends often come to be viewed as ends in themselves. This is what George Odiorne (Management and the Activity Trap, 1975) calls the “Activity Trap”.
By focusing attention on the plans, programmes and projects that tend to dominate conventional “change management” practice, managers and facilitators risk falling into Odiorne’s Activity Trap (see post here for further explanation). Change emerges from people’s in-the-moment interactions and exchanges. It’s here that meanings are continuously negotiated, identities constructed and outcomes co-created. These ‘realities’ of everyday organizational life tend to be entirely absent from the formal, structured trappings of management orthodoxy. And, as suggested in Extract #32, it’s these ongoing, local conversations and interactions that change facilitators might more usefully look to as the object of their attention.
There is one further taken-for-granted assumption about specialist planning (and leadership in general) which the paper challenges. And I'm happy to embrace this same sentiment in relation to the leadership and facilitation of change:
- Extract #44 – Seeing vagueness in objectives and means as a virtue.
“The ‘virtue of vagueness’ should not be overlooked.”
Conventional wisdom on organizational strategy and change sees clarity of objectives as a touchstone of effective management. In contrast, vagueness is something to be avoided: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there”, as the saying goes. Uncertainty, ambiguity and not knowing are often viewed as signs of poor management. But ‘the world’ (i.e. the boundaryless process and emergent outcomes of people interacting together) has a habit of not conforming to the plethora of formal plans, programmes and designs that seek to frame and channel this complex and dynamic network of interactions. And this is the case whether such plans etc are produced in the name of strategic planning” or “change management”.
Helping managers to understand these dynamics, to see vagueness as a virtue, and to work through the ‘not knowing’ then becomes a central element of the facilitator’s role. Of course, there might be some broadly shared, ‘coarse-grained’ view of overall purpose, ethos and strategic intent. But this does not mean that these desired outcomes can be realized through the ‘paint by numbers’ approach that detailed plans, programmes and activit imply. Also …
“Too rigid a commitment to a particular course of action can destroy flexibility. ... An appropriate degree of vagueness allows objectives to be achieved by many different means. With the many conflicting claims on the organisation’s resources, unclear objectives allow compromise through negotiation possible, and make agreement and [personal] commitment more likely.”
And, in any event, purpose, ethos and strategy are always open to interpretation and contention:
“The expression of objectives and policies can never be an exact science. Furthermore, policies always require interpretation and however explicit they may seem, different people will have different perceptions of their meaning and importance:
‘Policies, evolve and become clarified through a manager's daily activities.' (Uyterhoeven, H.E.R. et al, Strategy and Organisation)
In this section of the paper I concluded by saying, “The best approach [as regards objective setting] is probably that advocated by Kast, F.E. and Rosenzweig, J.E. (1974) Organisation and Management:
'To continue to strive for clarity as a means to make goal setting operational but to recognise that inability to do so may not necessarily be catastrophic and in fact may be beneficial to the organisation.’”
And in the end …
In a brief postscript to the analysis of the definition of specialist planning, entitled “Process ‘Revisited’”, I concluded that the task was “to convert these [previously stated] ‘process requirements’ into a structure which is just sufficiently formal for it to be made manifest to others, and to complement this with an informal ‘system’ of intervention by the planner in individual and group decision making.”
This leads to a concluding inference about the approach that might be adopted in relation to the facilitation of organizational change:
- Extract #45 – Blending the sensible use of sense-making frameworks and minimal enabling ‘structure’ with continuing informal and unstructured intervention in everyday organizational interactions.
This is a view of the change facilitation role that I’ve sought to draw attention to in Informal Coalitions.
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: