31- The Postmodern Leader: Style Two. I. Courage and Strategic Planning

July 12, 2010

[© Copyright. Feel free to link to this blog. Please ask author for permission before copying.]

I. Courage and Strategic Planning

In my previous two blogs I speculated on a postmodern version of Style One Leadership. In these blogs I postulated that the wise leader of premodern and modern societies becomes a lifelong learner rather than the source of either traditional knowledge (premodern)  or acquired (education/training) wisdom (modern). As I turn in these next two blogs to the second leadership style, I focus on new ways in which courage is manifest. In my blogs on premodern style two leadership I focused on courage as it is manifest in the bravery one exhibits in confronting an external enemy. In a modern setting, this second style is manifest in the capacity of the leader (as manager) to instill courage in those with whom this leader works – I described the process of empowerment as it is embraced by a style two leader and her team. The modern “enemy” doesn’t resides outside the organization. It resides inside the organization and takes on many forms.

What about Style Two leadership and the postmodern enemy? I propose that the postmodern enemy is much closer at hand. This enemy resides inside the heart and mind of the Style Two leader. The leader is now his or her own enemy and this enemy. As in the case of premodern and modern versions, this enemy is manifest in many forms. It can take the form of fear about specific actions. It can show up as anger that may begin as frustration or disgust with another person or group, but ends up as frustration or disgust with oneself (often leading to depression). The postmodern enemy can also be manifest in a state of “freeze” (rather than either fight or flight). A leader is faced with the challenge of paradox and polarity. She sees both sides of an issue and doesn’t know which decision to make – which path to take. Any decision will inevitably have a negative impact on some aspect of the organization. And no decision (leading to inaction) is even worse. So what does a Style Two leader do?

Planning and the Internal Enemy

In Blog 26 (Style Three/Modern) I wrote about the challenge of engendering passion and commitment to the processes of strategic planning. I mentioned in this blog that I would address the strategies of strategic planning in a later blog. Now is the time for identification of these strategies, for it is in the engagement of these strategies that a Style Two leader moves from a state of freeze to a state of action and from fear and anxiety regarding the unknown to a reasoned analysis and management of risk. It is through strategic planning that one can effectively encounter one’s own internal enemies and can truly be brave in the midst of postmodern complexity, uncertainty and turbulence.

In this blog I will specifically identify three approaches to strategic planning that I believe helps a style two leader confront the postmodern challenges. These three approaches relate directly to the three domains I have identified in previous blogs: (1) the domain of information, (2) the domain of intentions and (3) the domain of ideas. Each of these approaches begins with a different set of assumptions about the appropriate sequence for an organization to use in moving through these three domains. While each of these approaches holds some strengths, none of them fully address the unique challenges associated with the postmodern condition. In the next blog \(32) I identify two other approaches that I believe more effectively meet the challenges of our postmodern condition. Both of these approaches build on the three approaches to strategic planning that I identify in the current blog and each involves repeated movement through these three domains.

Approach One: Command-Based Planning

This first approach is probably the one most common for (in many ways) it involves no formal planning at all. The focus is on the domain of ideas—getting the flash of brilliance that launches a major new product or service line. Typically, the “boss” has an idea and then the rest of his staff scramble to find the information that supports this idea and they re-craft the intentions (mission, vision, values, purposes) of the organization so that these intentions are aligned with this idea. The organization then moves immediately to action (often before the justifying information and intentions are even fully assembled).

While, at first blush, this appears to be an inappropriate approach to strategic planning, it can be very effective if used by a small, family-owned organization or a highly entrepreneurial organization that must be responsive to a volatile market place. Certainly, there have been many instances of spectacular success in the use of this command approach in the high-tech industry, though there have also been many spectacular failures in this industry—one need only look to the failure of many dot.com startup ventures of the 1990s and early years of the 21st Century.

Obviously, one of the strengths of this approach to strategic planning is that it allows for rapid planning processes. In many ways the command approach to strategic planning does away with the distinction between strategic and tactical planning. Command based planning, whether strategic or tactical, tends to be highly contextual: an opportunity opens up and a great idea is formulated to meet an immediate customer need. The organization is “off to the races” with this idea. This approach often leads to many risks, but it also offers the possibility of a few big successes. Rather than being failure-avoidant, this approach is highly success-oriented: “we can make some mistakes, and hopefully learn from these mistakes; however, what is most important is that we have some major successes.” This approach more than any of the other approaches moves a Style Two leader out of freeze and inaction to action.

At a very practical level, this command approach is likely to be most appropriate in an organization that has substantial financial reserves or that has many programs operating that are already highly successful and are likely to product major revenues during the foreseeable future (the so-called “cash cow” of Boston Consulting Group fame). One needs this financial buffer (financial reserves from past successes or venture capital) to overcome the failures; without this buffer the success-oriented approach will be too risky. A couple of big failures will drive out the possibility of even launching a major success.

The primary weakness of the command approach is not just the potential for failure; at an even deeper level, the primary weakness concerns the treatment of information. Employees get in the habit of fashioning the data to meet the perspectives (and biases) of those who are in command—those who are producing the ideas. Once this habit is formed, the organization ceases to be a learning organization; it becomes increasingly vulnerable to repeated failures, especially in a volatile market. It is indeed ironic that the command approach is most likely to be used in an unpredictable world, yet it is also most likely to create organizational habits that block the capacity of those working in this organization to learn how to effectively respond to this unpredictable world.

We can relate this approach to strategic planning (as well as the other approaches) to several prominent models regarding ways in which people and entire organizations are likely to engage their world.  First we can turn to the model of personality type that was first offered by the Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, and was later modifies and made quite popular by architects of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). We find that the command approach is most likely to be embraced by leaders and by organizations that prefer the intuitive rather than sensing mode of perception, and that prefer the processes of judgment over the processes of perception (the NJ configuration on MBTI). Put in other words, these leaders and organizations are inclined to rely on hunches, images of potential opportunities and memories of past successes, rather than on data, “cold hard facts” or present day realities. They are also likely to move rapidly to action, rather than spending much time reflecting on the current situation—in terms of either gathering more information or further clarifying the relationship between actions about to be taken and the fundamental intentions of the organization.

There is also a tendency for those leaders and organizations embracing the command approach to assume an internal locus of control, meaning that they believe that they can readily influence the setting in which they operate—both the internal operations of the organization and the marketplace in which they are situated. Assuming this internal locus of control, these leaders and organizations will tend to focus on strengths as they relate to the leader’s or group’s ideas. We see this operating successfully in the “skunk-works,” and other forms of “intra-preneurship” that are to be found in many high-tech organizations. Furthermore, we find many of these leaders and organizations leveraging their distinctive strengths (though command approaches to strategic planning) in seeking to identify their “unfair advantage” in the marketplace. The internal locus of control can also lead to an ignoring or denial of weaknesses as well as the role played by powerful external forces.

On the other hand, an effective use of the command approach can be compatible with an external locus of control. To make sense of this use of an external locus, we turn to the well-known SWOT model of planning that is usually associated with Harvard University. The “S” in SWOT refers to the strengths that exist inside an organization, while the “W” refers to internal weaknesses. We have already mentioned that command-based planners are often inclined to focus on their distinctive strengths and ignore the weaknesses that exist in their organization.  The “O” and “T” in SWOT refer to external factors—opportunities and threats—that must be taken into consideration when engaged in strategic planning. Command-based planners can be very effective in adopting an external locus of control if they focus on opportunities that emerge in the external marketplace—especially as these opportunities relate to the innovative ideas introduced by the leader or group. Command-based planners can provide an entrepreneurial response to emerging opportunities. They can “seizing the moment [of opportunity]”, though in doing so they may be ignoring or denying threats that exist in the world.

Finally, before moving to the second approach, we will identify the major leadership challenge associated with the command approach to planning. This challenge concerns the frequent chaos being created in an organization that relies on command-based planning. Everyone in the organization may find themselves working in an uncoordinated manner to enact unrealistic plan. There is insufficient information and no clear priorities. Under such conditions, not only are members of the organization unlikely to learn much from either their failures or successes, they are also likely to find themselves repeatedly in the business of “fire fighting” rather than producing a high quality product or providing high quality service. The Style Two leader who embraces this command approach in an uncritical manner is likely to fail.

Approach Two: Symbol-Based Planning

This second approach is probably the second most commonly found. In some ways, like the first approach, this second approach actually involves no formal planning at all. The focus is on the domain of intentions—identifying or promoting a specific vision (or mission, purpose or values) for her organization. Once again, it is typically the “boss” who starts the planning process—in this case by promoting a specific “dream” or compelling image of what the organization could be if it successfully launches a new product or service. As in the case of the command-based approach, the rest of this leader’s staff scramble, in this instance, to generate an idea that hopefully will enable the organization to achieve her vision, and find information (often from the marketplace) that does two things: (1) demonstrates that this vision is “realistic” and “achievable” and (2) provides the idea-people with guidelines and boundaries for creating their successful strategy. The organization then moves to action inspired by and motivated by the compelling image offered by the Style Two symbolic leader.

The symbolic approach to planning can be very effective if used in very large organizations where the upper-tier of leaders primarily are in the business of inspiring rather than getting involved in the day-to-day operations of the organization. The symbolic approach also makes sense in a setting where the market place is relatively stable, but in which there must be a sustained effort for products or services to be viable. In other words, the symbolic approach makes sense when it comes to organizations that are in the business of product or service quality and must be constantly concerned with reputation and prestige. Collegiate institutions often belong in this category, as do organizations that produce high end products (such as Swiss watches or yachts) or provide high-end services (such as expensive resorts or restaurants offer).

One of the strengths associated with the symbolic approach to strategic planning is that it tends to encourage patience and persistence—an ongoing pursuit of some lofty and highly desirable outcome. Symbols inspire for the “long haul” and “keep us going when the going gets tough.” This second approach to strategic planning offers a clear distinction between strategic and tactical planning. The symbolic-based planner offers the big vision and the long-term strategy. She leaves the tactical implementation of the vision and strategy to the mid-managers and other lower-level employees in the organization. While the symbolic leader may find ways to “touch the masses” and may make a symbolic show of support for the operational managers of the organization (photographed climbing a telephone poll or serving a meal in a fast-food restaurant), this person (like the command-based leader) is often out of touch with the realities of the workplace. She fails to attend sufficiently to the domain of information—particularly information about the internal operations of the organization.

As in the case of the command approach, symbolic planning can often be risky—the dreams are often not very realistic  However, the symbolic planner and leader can be very appreciative and can provide support for a “success-oriented” approach to program development: “we have taken on a very ambitious goal and will undoubtedly make some mistakes on the way to this goal; hopefully we can learn from these mistakes; however, what is most important is that we get up, dust ourselves off, and try again to achieve a major, worthy success.”

This approach, like the command approach, is most appropriate in an organization that has substantial financial reserves or that has many programs operating that are already highly successful and are likely to product major revenues during the foreseeable future (the “cash cow”). Once again, it is a matter of building a financial buffer to overcome the failures; that is why the symbolic approach is often most appropriate in a large organization. This organization is likely to have a financial buffer if it has mounted successful programs for many years and has established a strong reputation and is prestigious. Reputation and prestige can themselves serve as financial buffers in that the symbolic leaders of this organization are more likely to get loans and additional financial backing than are leaders of organizations with less prestige and a more spotty reputation. The primary weakness of the symbolic approach concerns the treatment of information. As in the case of the command approach, employees may get in the habit of fashioning data to make the vision of their symbolic leaders seem viable. This is yet another way in which an organization ceases to be a learning organization;

If we turn once again to ways in which people and entire organizations are likely to engage their world, we find that the symbolic approach is most likely to be embraced by leaders and organizations preferring intuitive rather than sensing modes of perception, and that prefer feeling-based criteria rather than thinking-based criteria when arriving at a judgment (the NF configuration on MBTI). Symbolic leaders and organizations oriented to this approach are inclined to not only rely on hunches (as do the command-based planners), but also mistake dreams for reality. Their dreams are motivating in part because other people can see, hear and even taste these dream—thereby often mistaking the dreams for reality. Data and cold hard facts (the sensing function in MBTI) are often considered to be offensive and even a sign of disloyalty. They certainly are not welcomed. There is also a tendency for symbolic leaders and organizations to assume an internal locus of control. They believe that they can achieve anything, if there is sufficient commitment and effort. Assuming this internal locus of control, symbolic leaders and organizations (like their command counterparts) will tend to focus on strengths–especially as these strengths are aligned with the symbolic leader’s vision. The symbolic leader, like the command leader, is likely, with an internal locus of control, to ignore or deny weaknesses in their organization (especially the failure to understand or support their vision) and the role played by powerful external forces that are not aligned with their vision.

Once again, the key to effective symbolic planning by a Style Two leader is often the shift to an external locus of control. We turn again to SWOT. Symbol-based planners can be effective in adopting an external locus of control if they focus on ways in which their intentions (mission, values and purposes as well as vision) align with opportunities (O) that are emerging in the external marketplace to which their organization is responsive. A symbolic approach to strategic planning can be quite powerful if the symbolic planner’s or leader’s dreams can be connected to the dreams of stakeholders from outside their organization: “Go west young man [and woman] and seek your fortune, while fulfilling the manifest destiny of this great land.”  Furthermore, by identifying the threats (T) that exist out in the world, a symbolic planner can avoid the creation of dreams that simply can never be realized or that divert attention and resources away for those threats that can reduce or eliminate the organization’s capacity to realize its dreams.

Before moving to the third approach, I will again identify the major leadership challenge associated with this second approach to planning. This challenge concerns the ability of the symbolic planner and Style Two leader to clearly define the vision and link this vision to the personal aspirations not only of those who are leading the organization, but also other members of the organization and other stakeholders: “We will help each other out in realizing our personal dreams as well as our collective dream.”  Without this alignment between personal aspirations and organizational vision there is a lack of coordinated efforts. Like an automobile with nonaligned tires, the nonaligned organization will have to exert more energy, will find more wear-and-tear, and experience a much bumpier ride than the aligned organization.

Approach Three: Reason-Based Planning

The third approach to strategic planning is most often associated with modern, 20th Century organizational management. It begins with a focus on the domain of information—and, in particular, identifying the internal strengths and weaknesses of the organization, as well as the external opportunities and threats. Typically, this approach to planning is placed not in the hands of the upper level executives in the organization (as is the case with the command and symbolic approaches) but in the hands of a planning office, planning committee, the Management Information Systems office, or the Finance and Budgeting department of the organization.

The rational approach to planning can be very effective if used in an organization that is very large and in an organization that resides in a stable marketplace (or often a marketplace that this organization strongly influences or even controls). We are particularly likely to see this third approach embraced in an organization that is highly bureaucratized—in which change occurs slowly and with considerable deliberation. One of the strengths associated with the rational approach to strategic planning is that it tends to reduce failure—at least failure of major proportions. Failures are reduced not only because this approach emphasizes the formulation of realistic plans, but also because rational planning usually closely links the strategic and tactical planning of the organization. All of the tactics (often directed toward the achievement of specific objectives linked to specific initiatives) emerge from and are compatible with the strategic plan (often directed toward the achievement of programmatic goals).

While the command or symbolic leader may be out of touch with the reality of the workplace in their organization, the rational planner and leader is “in touch”—though this connection may be mostly in the form of numbers and statistics rather than actual, direct experience in the workplace. There is a tendency for rational planners to devote too much attention to calculations and not enough to commitment. This, in turn, points to one of the weaknesses of the rational planning approach. It too often leads to a plan that never gets implemented because it is not inspiring (the symbolic approach) or leads to results that are not very impressive given that the plan is not terribly innovative (the command approach).

The strength of the rational planning approach has already been noted—it is not very risky. More often “failure-avoidant” than either the command or symbolic approaches (which are more likely to be “success-oriented”), the rational approach makes sense if mistakes or failure would be very costly for the organization and its customers or clients. Rational planning makes sense in the design and construction of a new airplane or in the treatment of a seriously ill patient. You can’t afford any mistakes when flying 200 passengers across the Pacific Ocean or when treating a patient who might die if a mistake in diagnosis or treatment is made.

It is typically not hard for the rational planner to be practical. While large, bureaucratic organizations are likely to have substantial financial reserves, these reserves are often unnecessary if the rational planners have done a good job of preparing a SWOT analysis. On the other hand, when we turn again to the ways in which people and entire organizations are likely to engage their world, we find that the rational approach is just as “irrational” as the first two approaches. Just as many untested assumptions are likely to underlie a rational planning approach in the case of command and symbolic planning. Rational planners are usually inclined to assume an external locus of control. Though they may conduct a SWOT analysis that focuses on internal as well as external factors, attention usually is directed toward the external factors. In part, this focus on external factors is likely to occur because it is often assumed that these large, bureaucratic organizations are very hard to change internally—so why spend much time identifying internal strengths and weaknesses (especially the latter). It is often assumed, given the organization’s influence in its marketplace, that the organization is likely to be able to change external conditions more quickly than internal conditions.

With regard to MBTI profiles, the rational planner, leader and organization are most likely to be oriented toward the sensing function (S) when gathering information (perceiving) and to the thinking (T) processes when making a judgment (the ST configuration on MBTI). Rational planners, leaders and organizations are inclined to rely on data from the outside world, rather than building a plan on the basis of hunches (command-based planners) or dreams (symbolic planners). While their plans may not be very inspiring or innovative, they are realistic and have been derived in a systematic and thoughtful manner.

The key to effective planning for those Style Two leaders using the rational approach is often the opposite of those from the command and symbolic planners. The rational planners need to pay more attention to the internal operations of their organization—they must embrace an internal as well as external locus of control. A rational approach to strategic planning can be quite powerful if the planner or leader can fully appreciate the distinctive strengths that exist in her organization, and if she finds ways in which to use these strengths to address the weaknesses that exist in her organization. The “enemy” is not just an external threat. It is also internal inertia and a sense of powerlessness among those working in large, bureaucratized organizations. An appreciative perspective regarding distinctive strengths—especially when these strengths are being assessed in a systematic and thoughtful manner (the strong suit of rational planners)—can make a real difference in sustaining the viability of a large (and often old) organization.

Before moving in the next blog to the final two approaches to planning, I will identify the major leadership challenge associated with the rational approach to planning. This challenge concerns the focus of a rational planner and leader: “To what should I [the planner or leader] attend?” When one starts with the domain of information, there is an immediate question: “what do I look at first (given that we have not yet clarified intentions nor have any ideas to evaluate)?” This is where rational planning isn’t very rational. That to which we attend first, tends to be more influential than that to which we attend later. Furthermore, the way in which we interpret or place a frame around specific information has a great impact on how this information is used. Many scientists have come to realize in recent years that the tool of measurement may have a greater impact on the outcome of the measurement than the phenomenon being measured. Thus, rational planners need to be very careful in formulating their initial questions regarding strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and must be very careful in their selection of measurement tools and criteria when seeking to answer these questions.

Conclusions

In reviewing these approaches to strategic planning I would suggest that you ask yourself, as a leader, the following three questions in determining which of these approaches is most appropriate:

  1. Which of these approaches has been most commonly used by you during the past five years? Why have you used this particular approach?
  2. If you look at a project, change initiative or organizational improvement in which you are about to engage, which approach seems most appropriate? Why?
  3. Look back on your planning efforts in the past, your preferred way of doing planning (question one) and the planning challenges you now face (question two) what are the lessons learned from these past efforts that are applicable to today’s challenges? When have your planning efforts been most effective? Why do you think they have been effective? When have they been least effective? Why do you think this is the case?

You might find that none of the three approaches offered in this blog will do the trick. Perhaps one of the two more complex and often subtle approaches described in the next blog will be a better fit as you engage the personal enemy inherent in postmodern leadership.