Professor closes chapter on strategic planning


April 04, 1994|By TOM PETERS

McGill University Professor Henry Mintzberg, perhaps the world's premier management thinker, hammered the last nails in strategic planning's coffin in his just-released book, "The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning."

Of course, our mindless love affair with planning effectively ended a dozen years ago, when then-neophyte GE Chairman Jack Welch nixed his corporation's hyper-formalized planning system and most of the planners along with it.

Still, Mintzberg's latest is so encyclopedic, so damning . . . and so final. It closes a major act in the American management drama.

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

Mintzberg hardly limits himself to reciting such gratuitous, if deadly accurate, barbs. In chapter after chapter he meticulously exposes planning's problems. Consider just three:

* 1. 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 '70s, Mariann Jelinek gushed about Texas Instruments' rococo Objectives, Tactics and Strategies system, a scheme one TI exec later described as "a paperwork mill that makes it absolutely impossible to respond to anything that moves quickly." (TI, like GE, trashed its system following a long string of marketplace blunders.) Mintzberg views Jelinek's belief in "institutionalizing innovation" as the final performance of a long-running play. "The revolution that [time-and-motion study pioneer Frederick] Taylor initiated in the factory," he writes, "was [now] being repeated at the apex of the hierarchy, and the outcome would be fundamentally no different."

* 2. Hard data ain't. Not surprisingly, process fanatics go gaga over factoids. Yet Mintzberg reveals the "soft underbelly of hard data," typified by the fallacy of "measuring what's measurable." The results are limiting, for example a pronounced tendency "to favor 'cost leadership' strategies (emphasizing operating efficiencies, which are generally measurable) over product-leadership strategies (emphasizing innovative design or high quality, which tends to be less measurable)."

Overall, Mintzberg opines, "While hard data may inform the intellect, it is largely soft data that generate wisdom. They may be difficult to 'analyze,' but they are indispensable for 'synthesis' -- the key to strategy making."

* 3. Detachment kills. Mintzberg next pounces on the "assumption of detachment," quantification's close kin. "If the system does the thinking," he declares, "the thought must be detached from the action, strategy from operations, ostensible thinkers from doers. . . . It is this disassociation of thinking from acting that lies close to the root of [strategic planning's] problem."

With near disbelief, Mintzberg cites an "astonishing" statement by a British planner: "Through the [planning] process we can stop managers falling in love with their businesses." Such was the unabashed goal of yesterday's planning mavens, as another British exec reports with alarm: "The chief executive of a group of world-famous management consultants tried hard 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 concludes, "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 ring to planners. Strategies that break the mold, 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 Mintzberg's primary role for modern planners: "finders" of strategies, rather than designers of strategies. They may best serve their firms by discovering "fledgling strategies in unexpected pockets of the organization so that consideration can be given to [expanding] them."

Mintzberg observes, ironically, that historically our passion for planning mostly flourishes during stable times (e.g., the 1960s). Faced with discontinuities of the sort that have become routine today, planners have been caught in concrete boots, looking back over their shoulders, and routed. 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 just-the-facts-ma'am, elaborate planning schemes.

Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; (407) 420-6200.

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