Strategic planning in government: mistakes and misconceptions

Strategic information technology planning has become fashionable in all levels of government over the past few years, especially where chief information officer positions have been established in the hopes of bringing IT into better alignment with overall "business" goals and objectives. However, strategic IT planning is relatively new in most government settings, and many government organizations have struggled— as have their private-sector counterparts— to establish and maintain satisfactory strategic IT planning activities.

"It ain't what you don't know that will hurt you; it's what you think you know that ain't so," said Satchel Paige, and the legendary baseball pitcher's words certainly apply to strategic IT planning. Regardless of what legislatures may expect and even mandate in law, the most common (and fatal) mistake in strategic planning is to focus on producing a document. A few savvy government planning efforts have acknowledged the transitory nature of strategic IT plans by making their outputs World Wide Web pages rather than printed tomes. But the most important reason not to focus on "The Plan" is that its content is less important than the process and the understanding that it will be modified as needs, people and technologies change. "Strategy is something you do, rather than something you have," said Arie De Geus, author of the classic Harvard Business Review article "Planning As Learning."

The second most common— and serious— blunder in planning is related to the first, but it is more subtle. Even organizations that successfully avoid the first may still be stymied. The mistake lies in allowing the desired structure of the plan to dictate the structure of the planning process. In most cases, the envisioned plan will be organized in logical fashion, beginning with the mission of the agency or department and continuing through goals, objectives, strategies and perhaps tactics. All of that is fine and makes perfectly good sense, but the process by which that plan is arrived at— and subsequently modified in the future— will be anything but logical. It will be emotional and chaotic. It will proceed by "fits and starts." It will be circular, convoluted and possibly even mystical. Most planning activities seem to require a miracle, perhaps several of them, somewhere along the way if they are to be ultimately successful.

After these two mistakes, the most common planning blunders are more obvious and less serious:

* Too much emphasis on technology. In any situation involving substantial change, technology is at most 20 percent of the problem. People and politics are far more likely to undermine success.

* Not enough user involvement. Token user participation— or none at all— is all too often the norm. More importantly, the "right" users must be included in formulating the plan. Planning needs those at the bottom of the food chain, not representatives who are out of touch or who are unable to "tell it like it is."

* "No help needed." Although strategic planning in its ideal form should be as natural as breathing, most organizations and their members must go through a considerable amount of experiential learning to reach that level. It is possible that some groups and persons can accomplish this "on their own," but in most cases outside counselors, mentors and facilitators can greatly accelerate that process.

* Outsource it to the experts. I continue to be amazed at the number of organizations that hand over all or most of the content of strategic planning to consultants and/or vendors. This is the complete antithesis of the "learning organization" and for that reason exemplifies the worst in abdication and irresponsibility.

Having said so much about what not to do, I would be remiss if I did not give a few suggestions about how to strategically plan the "right" way. I have already stated that strategic planning should be regarded as a process— in particular, a learning process. Because strategy formulation essentially is a right-brain activity, involving creativity and synthesis, while planning is the province of the left-brain, involving logic and analysis, "strategic planning" is, in a sense, an oxymoron. The way for it to rise above the level of self-contradiction and gridlock is not through repressing either the right- or left-brain aspects but by bringing them both fully into play in a process that is often chaotic and cacophonous. In many respects, it's just like democratic government, except you get to make up your own constitution.

The main thing to remember is that strategic planning really shouldn't be difficult. The best way to begin is by letting go of preconceived notions that ain't so.

Lindamood is vice president and research director for the Gartner Group. He has more than 37 years in the information industry and was previously director of the state of Washington's Department of Information Services.

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