What is strategy?

Development Policy28 Nov 2009Frans Bieckmann

Next week, issue 17 of The Broker will be sent to all subscribers and published online.

In between, I will be travelling to the east of the Netherlands, to the town of Wageningen, for a two-day seminar about ‘Strategy and Complexity’. I hope that we can start to answer some pressing questions there – see below.

In April last year, The Broker published a long article by Alan Fowler about complexity. We also organized an online debate about complexity thinking. In issue 10, October 2008, Jim Woodhill, organizer of the two-day seminar in Wageningen this week, wrote about the role of (informal) institutions as a kind of follow up.

And now we have started a new blog about Strategy and Complexity. This topic is of particular interest to me. Strategic thinking is lacking in much development policy and practice. At best, ministries and NGOs operate tactically, adjusting their activities to immediate changes in the field or in international politics. Tactics are short term. Tactics means analyzing what is going on in the sector or the region an organization is working in, and changing policies if necessary. Not all donors operate tactically. I would say that many do not: they have their multi-annual plans and stick to them. For many reasons, not least that their homeland constituencies want them to show the results they have predicted.

Strategic thinking is even less common. To me, operating strategically means overseeing and analyzing the broad picture in which one has to operate – so not only the immediate day-to-day actualities in the field and maybe in home politics, but also the longer term, more abstract and increasingly global processes that influence what is happening on the ground. Including (geo)political, economic, cultural and other processes that, at first glance, do not seem related to the day-to-day caring for the poor or victims of conflicts and disasters. In other words: strategy has to do with very complex processes.

So, again, operating strategically for me means overseeing and analyzing all these levels, then choosing what is most appropriate and effective for the longer term goals.

The big question is…how to do this? It is not enough to repeat the – very true – fact that linear thinking and top-down planning are too limited. Or that we have to accept that sudden changes and unexpected influences make it impossible to predict the future.

We have to go one step further: can we design relatively simple ‘models’ or other tools to analyze the multi-level processes, recognizing the complexity and accepting that they can only give us probabilities, not absolute certainties?

I hope that the coming seminar will provide some answers to this.