Strategic Planning in a Reactive World: Is Strategy Still Important for Government?

Strategic planning in a reactive world

Is a private company any better at strategic planning than a government is? Or have we reached a point where strategic planning in government doesn’t make sense anymore?  

If you accept the premise that we live in an increasingly reactive world, is it unrealistic to try to avoid crises? Should we instead just reward managers who can mitigate them

Stan Krpan, CEO of Solar Victoria and co-chair of the Building Victoria Recovery Task Force, thinks strategy is more important than ever.

But he thinks it’s a different sort of strategy. ‘Obviously it needs to be more agile, but questions like: What is our purpose? What’s our unique value proposition? What are we open to? What do we say no to? —these are more important to answer than ever.’

What do you say no to?

Strategic planning can help you through periods of uncertainly, such as we’re going through now, even though you couldn’t have predicted those circumstances. These periods should force you to reflect on whether what you have been doing is wrong or whether, no, the mission hasn’t changed, let’s just soldier on.

Stan believes this has become one of the biggest challenges of government. ‘The expectations are so unrelenting. And the better you are at meeting expectations, the greater those expectations become! And obviously in the current circumstance the expectations of what governments can do, and what they should do, and how they do it, and the standards we in government are held to are incredibly high.

‘I think one of the biggest challenges for government is what do you say no to? In a business I think there is more discipline because they can say this is our customer and we will do everything for that customer, but we’re not going to do other things, we’re not going to be distracted.’

But the ‘customers’ of government are all of us, so it’s easy for governments to get distracted by the demands of different stakeholders.

Doing three things well or ten things badly

If you are tasked with one job and you did it very well, it’s common to be asked to tack another bit on in addition, and this can result in drift. And that’s one of the risks of not having a really clear strategy. If you do take that extra expectation on, you have to recognise it for what it is—a temporary departure.

What’s changed for Stan in the last few years is the pace at which he’s expected to respond.

‘We laud agility’, he explains. ‘That doesn’t mean we’re all over the place. It just means we’re able to pivot when we need to. But the horizon for a strategy, at least in my world, is shorter. So it might be a two or three year strategic plan or framework, as opposed to something beyond 5 years, and you might annually refresh it. That doesn’t mean we’re going to be really rigid and not respond. We will, but I think we’re a bit more disciplined about the upside and downside of potential scenarios; what are our core capabilities versus adjacencies? What are those adjacencies that we’re interested in? What are those adjacencies that we would always say no to?

‘Because the temptation is to do everything you can. Put as much as you can to make that difference. Apart from being exhausting, that can lead to mission creep and dilute some of the focus. We need to guard against that.’

Strategic planning from a government versus a business perspective

Stan thinks government is increasingly much more responsive to public expectations. And, as we know, those expectations are really high. ‘I think government, particularly in the current circumstance, but even in the last few years, has demonstrated that it is agile. It’s incredibly innovative in my experience as well.

‘Community expectations are not as apparent in corporate life as they are in public life, which is much more transparent and open to criticism.’

And government has perhaps caught up with business in innovation.

‘There has been a demonstration in the last six months of things we never thought possible. We run a contact center that went to work-from-home in two weeks with 50 staff!  A year ago I would have said that just wouldn’t work.’

That’s not an example of reactively changing the mission of the organization, but changing the capability of the organization to deliver on its existing mission and vision.

‘One of my experiences’, Stan says, ‘which has always impressed me in government, is that people want to make a difference. What’s emerged over the last six months is that we’re much more acutely aware that this is an asset you can leverage when you need to and that that causes you to be innovative.’

Can reactivity be a good thing?

Stan prefers the term ‘responsiveness’ because ‘reactive’ has a negative connotation. People don’t see it as being strategic. If you’re reactive, you’re at the whim of others or you’re a bit adrift.

But if you have a strategy in place, you don’t react, you respond in the context of what you’re meant to be doing and the people you’re meant to be serving.

Stan says, ‘This is a real challenge for organisations everywhere, particularly for boards, for executive teams. The expectation is that you will manage all your risks, that you will have great governance. And, of course, the community deserves nothing less. So as a board you focus a lot on the reputation of the organisation. But then things are being disrupted and moving so quickly that if you’re not in a sense disrupting yourself or you’re not responding, you’re not constantly sensing what’s happening in the market and with your customers and your competitors and other leaders, you’re going to be left behind.

‘That’s where a good strategy provides the right building blocks, which are: Where are we heading? Who are we? Who do we serve? What is it we do uniquely? What are our key capabilities?’ 

One of the bright spots of the last six months is that we’ve seen people’s willingness to change. So if you’re in government, or any organisation, rather than putting in place structures to manage your own anxiety, you should recognise the public’s tolerance for change and respond—not react, but respond—in a timely way.

A good strategy helps determine what issues you should deal with versus those you should ignore. A good strategy creates the future you want.

If you are interested in further exploring strategy development, you might like the podcast and article I did with Kelly O’Shanassy, CEO of ACF on ‘Building Strategy in Complex Organisations‘.

Guest:Stan Krpan
Organisation:Solar Victoria
Best Quote:“The temptation is to do everything you can. Put in as much as you can to make that difference. Apart from being exhausting, that can lead to mission creep and dilute some of the focus. We need to guard against that.”
More Info:Stan on Twitter

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