Given the widespread uncertainty in all areas of organisational life, a powerful contrast emerged between those who advocate the preparation of more comprehensive and detailed plans, and those who question the culture of planning and the value of our attempts to predict and engineer our futures.
From the stories shared, it became apparent that for many teams a plan is produced but not actively used. Prepared at the start of the year, and brought out at the end, some acts of imaginative retrospective evidence-gathering are applied to connect plans (more or less) with what has actually happened. In other organisations, plans were described as continually brought out and worried over, with much time being spent on wrestling them into line with unfolding events.
I took along some of John Shotter’s ideas as I have long been impressed with his attempts to describe our ongoing relationship with emerging circumstances. He highlights the difficulties of relating to never-before-encountered circumstances, proposing that they ‘cannot be overcome simply by our thinking about them, for at first we have nothing to think with – the qualitative nature, the kind of situation we are in, is unclear to us. Only gradually, as we begin to move around within it, does its nature begin to come into focus and we gain a practical sense of how to go on’. He proposes that our attitude, or orientation, towards changing circumstances is critical, seeing us as moving ‘within’ the changes, rather than outside thinking about them.
From this perspective, the priority shifts from planning to preparation, with preparation construed in terms of attitude, sensitivity to emerging events, alertness. In contrast to the action-planning language of targets, outcomes and deliverables, Shotter talks about ‘signs of direction’, ‘unfolding dynamics’, ‘tendencies’ and ‘emerging shape’. These things may sound ephemeral, but he reminds us that we can have an acutely discriminative sense of direction and shape which can lead us to ‘transitory understandings’, and ‘action-guiding anticipations’. He may continually refer to non-specific ‘feelings of movement’ but he also pays sharp attention to ‘moments of judgement’. It could be argued that cultivating an attitude to unfolding events which enables sensitive judgements in real time is more critical than attempting to plan detailed action sequences in advance.
Some interpretive work is needed to translate his theory into a business context, but these ideas connect well with my own experience of navigating the fast-moving complexity of organisational life. Becoming more attuned to patterns of movement and emphasising preparation and orientation rather than relying on traditional modes of action planning may serve us well in these unpredictable times. www.johnshotter.com
(cartoon by Funny Eye)
24th April 2012