Plans down the drain: Tom Peters On excellence

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The Independent Online
PROFESSOR Henry Mintzberg of McGill University in Montreal, perhaps the world's premier management thinker, may have hammered the final nails into the coffin of the corporate planner in his book The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning.

Of course, our mindless love affair with planning effectively ended a dozen years ago, when Jack Welch, then the neophyte chairman of General Electric, scrapped his corporation's hyper-formalised system and most of the planners along with it. Still, Mintzberg's latest work is so encyclopaedic, so damning . . . and so final that it closes a central act in the American management drama.

'A good deal of corporate planning . . . is like a ritual rain dance,' wrote Professor Brian Quinn of Dartmouth. 'It has no effect on the weather that follows - but those who engage in it think it does.'

Henry Mintzberg hardly limited himself to reciting such gratuitous, if deadly accurate, barbs. In chapter after chapter he meticulously exposed planning's problems.

Consider just three:

Process strangles. Process was king for the champions of strategic planning. They are 'more set on deciding rightly than upon right decisions', said one commentator.

In the late 1970s, Mariann Jelinek gushed about Texas Instruments and its rococo 'objectives, tactics and strategies' system, a scheme that one Texas Instruments executive later described as 'a paperwork mill that makes it absolutely impossible to respond to anything that moves quickly'. (Just as GE had, TI trashed its system following a long string of blunders in the marketplace.)

Mintzberg viewed Jelinek's belief in 'institutionalising innovation' as the final performance of a long-running play.

'The revolution that Taylor (Frederick Taylor, the pioneer of time-and-motion studies) initiated in the factory,' Mintzberg wrote, 'was (now) being repeated at the apex of the hierarchy - and the outcome would be fundamentally no different.'

Hard data isn't. Not surprisingly, process fanatics go gaga over factoids. Yet Professor Mintzberg reveals the 'soft underbelly of hard data' - typified by the fallacy of 'measuring what's measurable'.

The results are limiting - for example, he recognises a pronounced tendency 'to favour cost leadership strategies (which emphasise operating efficiencies that are generally measurable) over product-leadership strategies (which emphasise innovative design or high quality, which tends to be less measurable).'

Overall, Mintzberg has concluded: 'While hard data may inform the intellect, it is largely soft data that generate wisdom. The data may be difficult to analyse, but they are indispensable for synthesis - which is the key to strategy making.'

Detachment kills. Mintzberg pounces on the 'assumption of detachment', a close kin of quantification. 'If the system does the thinking,' he says, 'the thought must be detached from the action, strategy from operations, (and) ostensibly thinkers from doers . . . It is this disassociation of thinking from acting that lies close to the root of planning's problems.'

With near-disbelief, Mintzberg cites a statement by a British planner: 'Through (planning) we can stop managers falling in love with their businesses.' Such was the unabashed goal of yesterday's planning mavens. Another British executive reports: 'The chief executive of a group of management consultants tried to convince me that it is ideal that top management . . . should have as little knowledge as possible of the product.'

To expose such problems with planning is important, but it still misses the point, implying that the process can be fixed. Forget it, Mintzberg snorts, challenging planning's 'fundamental assumption' that analysis produces synthesis.

'Planning by its very nature,' he said, 'defines and preserves categories. Creativity, by its very nature, creates categories or rearranges established ones. This is why strategic planning can neither provide creativity nor deal with it when it emerges by other means.'

Having demolished strategic planning, Mintzberg in the end throws a life line to planners. Strategies that break the mould, he says, 'grow initially like weeds. They are not cultivated like tomatoes in a hothouse . . . (They) can take root in all kinds of places.'

Thence his primary role for modern planners: as finders of strategies, rather than designers of strategies. They may best serve their firms by discovering 'fledgling strategies in unexpected pockets of the organisation, so that consideration can be given to them.'

Mintzberg observes that our passion for planning mostly flourishes during stables times. Faced with discontinuities of the sort that have become routine today, planners have been caught in concrete boots. The importance of greeting discontinuities with bold strategies is more significant than ever. Just don't expect fast footwork and zany departures to emerge from closeted analysts promoting bare facts and elaborate planning schemes.

Strategic planning, as we knew you, rest in peace.

Copyright TPG Communications