I was chatting with a potential client the other day…I like to use provocation to engage and test the quality of my clients… and on this occasion there was one topic where I got to really grab their attention. Asked about the importance of strategy documents, I said I consider them basically useless.

Their value, I proposed, rests only in capturing and reminding people of the meaning making that has already occurred amongst those generating the strategy. The important part is the meaning making process, as like it or not, a) strategy needs to be understood and shared by those implementing it for it to actually be followed and b) strategy needs to be a living, dynamic management of overall direction, that responds to an ever more complex operating environment, something a very dead document can never do. Blindly following a document that you might not understand or that you don’t agree fits the changing context for the organisation is the opposite of strategic thinking and action: it invites only petty political plays and overall, strategic blindness on behalf of the organisation.

The two important concepts in my argument were ‘meaning making’ and ‘context’ and they’re intimately, dynamically, inherently connected. The reasoning goes like this: what we deem relevant in a context is the very basis for our meaning making, therefore the breadth and depth of the context we consider determines the quality of the meaning and any resulting decision. And while this could slip into circular logic, by noting that ‘what we deem relevant in a context’ is itself based on the meaning we have already made, our values and resulting judgment of relevance, lets approach it sideways.

Psychology points out that our sense of identity defines the boundary of what we care about and what we don’t: our reality context. Behind this observation is another: that we can only care about things that we can cognitively consider or understand. If I am a child who does not yet recognise object permanence (peek-a-boo comes to mind), once something isn’t immediately visible, it doesn’t come to mind, and actions proceed apace within a very limited context: what is visible. The average western adult does have a memory of experienced objects, and generally also of family, friends and their work-a-day community members. Their reality context spans out to community, perhaps nationality or ethnicity and maybe even to all those who share the same language. Outside of that context, that cognitively considered reality, that sense of identity boundary, it doesn’t really compute: starving children in Africa, Islamic immigrants in Australia, Iraqi suicide attack victims, the Amazon rainforest, they’re all only ‘abstractly related’ to ‘reality.’

Aside: Whenever you hear a person say ‘you’re too abstract lets deal with reality,’ you know they’ve reached the limit of their cognitive development and meaning making capability, not that the speaker/you are necessarily speaking irrelevantly about the topic at hand;) Does this speak to your experience of Australia’s anti-intellectualism? Does it mean Australian’s are generally just underdeveloped or perhaps even anti-human development? Or are most academics, many independent thinkers, and a lot of thoughtful types like writers just idiots who aren’t realistic?

To provide an example, The Age recently quoted Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams at length about his rebuke of anti-gay clergy interpretation of a famous line in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. In short, the Anglican anti-gay movement focused on one sentence and ignored the rest of the paragraph, letter and most of the bible for that matter. A rather limited context within which to make meaning, and develop decisions for action. The Archbishop’s radical proposal? Read the next sentence and make meaning of the two together. Whoa. Avoiding being pro-gay or anti-gay the Archbishop simply wants his worldwide clergy to learn how to read and interpret a text, one paragraph at a time.

In many ways, it’s a great move; if a little depressing when you think about it. But, back to Australia and her organisations’ strategies: the insight for me is that while I could make sense of an organisation’s complex global operating environment by conducting incisive foresight research, developing cogent analyses and developing an amazingly relevant, adaptable and successful strategy it is all for nought unless those using it, implementing it, actually understand it. Logic itself doesn’t always count. I’ll present one interpretation of reality (an event, issues, trend etc) and others could see the opposite by only being cognitively able to recognise a small piece of the puzzle: the rest is me just being abstract and irrelevant. Enter politics and power plays from stage right.

Now the above observation dooms most strategy before it even gets out of the gate. But all is not lost. The Archbishop provides one key lesson in dealing with this political conundrum: education. And there are others: translation of a contextualised logic into a more limited context (of the meaning recipient) and communicating only the essentials (again conforming to the limited context). These last two options, while they can take some work and skill (that’s often beyond me personally!) are also fundamentally flawed: not everything can be broken down to the level of a child’s understanding for example. And even if the essential parts can, it often leaves out the important details that allow independent actors to align the detail of their action to the strategic direction: strategy goes askew in the implementation not because it’s bad strategy per se, but because people can’t understand it, no matter how simple you make it.

The Archbishop’s approach, however, takes time. But, if the organisation values what it is doing, then it’s necessary. The upshot for strategy development then is that those in charge of interpreting it through implementation need to actively be involved in its development so that they grapple with the context and learn about it, making meaning together, or not only does it risk being irrelevant strategy, it won’t be understood and followed. There are many other benefits from this approach too: empowered leaders/managers, a shared meaning strategic conversation that better equips organisations to respond to change in the operating context, the development of people which generally leads to quality in other operational areas as well as staff retention, and the removal of a lot, not all, bases of political power plays resulting from strategy misalignment.

Why did my argument ‘jolt’ my potential clients? Because not many organisations actually do this. Heck, a lot of SMEs and Government organisations don’t even have real strategy documents to begin with, let alone explicit, strategic, collaborative meaning and decision making processes. Scary, when you think of the increased complexity of operating environments even at a local suburb based level.

To come full circle: I ended up turning potential clients into new clients, which is good, because my previous main client revealed a ‘bad client’ card when the new chief declared at the Christmas party: “Complexity doesn’t exist. Things are the same as they always have been. Very simple really.”

Simple indeed.