Strategic Learning LO19792

Fred Nickols (
Tue, 10 Nov 1998 17:29:38 -0500

Replying to Steven Maranville in LO19772 --

>I am intrigued with Fred's concept
>of strategy-making as "conversations." I would like to hear more about
>these practices and others that facilitate strategic learning. Thanks for
>the discussion on this issue.

I'm what's called a staff executive, which is to say, I'm not in the line.
When I led the team that redesigned the business planning and management
processes at ETS a few years back, I was of the opinion that the job of
staff is to get line managers to do the planning, not do it for them. In
a word, I view my job as "facilitating."

My view of "facilitating" line managers is NOT one of getting them to do
the kinds of dumb things strategic planning has been accused of fostering.
Instead, I view it as a matter of getting interdependent line managers to
think about, examine, explore and identify the critical business issues
they face and to then work collaboratively to address them. Plenty of
learning occurs in these kinds of loosely structured interactions.

Analytically, part of my job entails figuring out who ought to be talking
with whom when and about what. The rest is operational, that is, actually
getting them together and getting them to talk. The analytical part is
easy; the operational part is a downright challenge. Managers frequently
like to complain to and about each other but putting on a common harness
is foreign to many of them.

Ultimately, the real trick hinges on getting someone to take
responsibility for addressing an issue. It is very easy to get them all
to assume the responsibility (which means that no one of them has), but it
is much more difficult to get an individual to "step up the plate" and
say, "I'll take it on." That takes real courage and runs contrary to the
self-preservation instinct.

What's interesting to me about this "conversation-oriented" view of
strategy making is that it happens in meetings, via e-mail and telephone
calls. Only rarely does it occur via memoranda and documents called
"plans." Moreover, if the conversations are in fact occurring on a
regular, productive basis, the need for formal documentation is minimal--a
few pages at most. My job, then, is not to formulate strategy but to help
others formulate it. My job is not to make the choices but to help inform
those choices. My job is not to define the strategy but to help those who
have defined it subsequently articulate and communicate it.

And, quite frankly, it beats the heck out of me having to be personally
responsible for the strategic plan (whatever that is).


Fred Nickols Executive Director Strategic Planning & Management Services Educational Testing Service Princeton, NJ 08541 609.734.5077 Tel 609.734.5590 Fax

Views and opinions expressed are those of the author, not ETS...

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