VISION-BASED PLANNING: THEORY & PRACTICE
Christine A.R. MacNulty, FRSA and CAPT Karl R. Heinz, USN
This presentation is in two parts:
Christine MacNulty, President & CEO, Applied Futures, Inc will give the first part on the theory behind the approach to vision-based planning, then
CAPT Karl Heinz, USN, will describe the practice - the experiences of Naval Special Warfare Group ONE, as it undertook this approach to vision development in November, 1995, and then updated the vision in May, 1997.
Planners are in difficulty. On the whole, most of us are facing the future with tools which were developed decades ago. We are planning yesterday's campaigns to fight tomorrow's battles. Organizations are operating in a business environment which is changing rapidly and at an ever increasing rate and with ever greater discontinuities. Traditional strategic planning is generally based on the organization's history, it is generally mechanistic, and it cannot handle unanticipated events or discontinuous change. It tends to assume that world of tomorrow will be essentially like that of today - that it can be modeled in knowable ways. Not only is this view likely to be incorrect, it lulls us into a false sense of security. In a rapidly changing world there is no guarantee that even a successful organization is doing today the thing that will be the "right thing" tomorrow. As a client of ours once said: "There is no point in doing the wrong thing better".
Strategic planning is about deciding where the organization wants to be in the future, and then allocating its resources to get there. This is a broad strategic undertaking - it requires a real understanding of the organization's total operating environment, and of all its stakeholders - it is not about micro-managing. The key to successful strategic planning is to have a good and strong strategic vision and an organization that can cope with, and even thrive on change.
Developing a strong strategic vision
While none of us can predict the future, we can improve the odds on our decisions. More importantly, we can develop a shared vision and strategies, with a view to making our organizations better able to cope with change.
To accomplish this, we need to:
Almost all major organizations have strategic plans and many have vision statements. Yet in too many organizations the visions, which should be genuine sources of inspiration and direction are almost meaningless platitudes expressing aspirations which many stakeholders believe to be irrelevant or too ambitious. Such visions are seldom shared by those at subordinate levels of the organization who must make them a reality. A vision will not inspire and guide if it is imposed on an organization by the individual at the top - even in a military organization.
A vision must be shared by the leadership of an organization. As Peter Senge says : "...it is...a force in people's hearts, a force of impressive power...it is palpable....Few, if any, forces in human affairs are as powerful as a shared vision".
What we need, then is to develop a vision which is truly shared by all the leadership, and which they, in turn can share with their people; and there are ways to do this which encourage the sharing of the vision throughout the organization. When this happens, the vision becomes a part of the organization. It forms the set of guiding principles upon which the organization operates, and on which the decisions are based. In the military, this kind of set of guiding principles is known as "the Commander's Intent". If people really understand it and internalize it, then, when faced with a decision, all they need ask themselves is: "Does this decision take me/us in the direction of the Commander's intent (the vision), or not?" If it does, then the decision is the correct one to take. If it doesn't, then they need to seek advice further up the command structure. This kind of shared vision can free managers from an enormous amount time wasted in discussing small decisions and tactics, and it gives a much greater autonomy to individuals in the workforce.
The vision becomes the guiding star for the organization. By focusing on it, the organization can understand what it may have to do in the short term to enable it to get there. All really successful organizations have this kind of focus, which enables them to ignore or minimize short-term distractions. It's like sailing to a particular destination. You know where you want to go, but variations in the windspeed and direction, the tidal streams and various hazards, may mean that you can't sail in a straight line. You may have to tack, you may have to avoid obstacles, but as long as you know where you want to get to, then you set your course accordingly. Organizations without this kind of guiding star get battered about by circumstances, they lose their sense of direction, and they sometimes get to places they regret.
The vision is not just a brief vision statement, although it may be captured in such a way once it has been thought through in detail. A vision should reflect the organization's heritage - where it came from, what is unique about it. It should contain not only a vision about what the organization is and will be, but a purpose - what is the organization for? It needs to reflect the organization's values - truthfully. And it needs to reflect the organization's capabilities - also truthfully, although with some aspirations. It needs to inspire, and it needs to be future oriented. All of this takes long and hard work - a good strategic vision is unlikely to be thought up in a couple of hours or even a couple of days. It is the first stage in the strategic planning process.
Strategic planning is a process
Strategic planning is an ongoing process - it should not be conducted as a "one-off" project, although there may be parts of the process that appear to have a project format. Indeed, the first stage in the process should involve all the leadership of the organization in a workshop during which they develop the vision, goals and strategies for the organization as a whole. In our particular process, this takes six working days, usually separated by a weekend. But then the people who will be implementing the strategy on behalf of the whole organization need to work with their people to develop a vision goals and strategies for their part of the organization, and so the process cascades down through the organization.
At all times throughout the strategic planning process, the logic trail must be visible, so that everyone can see how each goal and strategy developed. We use a "war room" format for our reports, so that the organization can see exactly how decisions were reached. In addition, this war room format enables the strategic plan to be updated as new information becomes available.
Periodically, perhaps every twelve or eighteen months, the whole process should be repeated - the vision assessed for continued relevance, the goals and strategies evaluated and updated. Obviously we would not expect the vision to change much - after all, it is the guiding star - but there may be circumstances in which we might want to "tweak it" a little.
CAPT Karl Heinz, USN, who is doing a double act with me, will tell you about the original vision project we undertook for Naval Special Warfare Group ONE, in November '95, and the "sustaining the vision" project we completed a few months ago.
Aspects of the process
A "robust" strategic planning process should prepare an organization for a future filled with change. The process of preparing such a plan involves deciding where the organization might be in the future (based on a thorough assessment of the operating environment, and how the organization might influence and be influenced by it) and then deciding exactly which part of the future it would like to have, and how to get there. A robust strategic planning process will:
We help our clients achieve their realistic visions and robust strategic plans by the use of scenarios which we have found to be the best technique to enable the members of the project team cope with change and to experience new ideas. Almost all scenario development techniques start from the premise that certain fundamental tasks must be included:
Most work in scenario development is done by mechanical methods such as gaming, or modeling. It is often done by a group of people (staff or consultants) remote from the decision makers. The difference in Applied Futures' method begins here. But before we examine our process, let us look at the problems associated with the more conventional approaches to considering the future.
Our experience over the past 25 years suggests that scenarios are better tools for considering the future than forecasts because:
What are the problems with scenarios?
How do you get around this problem?
The preparation of scenarios is so expensive that, in our view, they are not justified unless the decision makers participate in their development as the planning process.
Rules and Guidelines for our Scenario Process
There are many practitioners of the scenario method, and they all have different techniques and even different definitions of the word. Our techniques and definitions are very different, indeed. These definitions will become clear as we discuss our scenario method below. We will start with some "rules" which we have developed over the years for conducting our scenario development:
By following these rules we are trying to set the scene for encouraging the participating managers to break out of their existing mindsets.
Future to present:
Most planning processes start from today and work out towards the future (through rolling 5 year plans and one year budgets et al.). They also start from the organization - its existing capabilities, core competencies, technologies etc. - and work out to its operating environment. Both of these are based on an extrapolative view which tends to keep the organization's perspectives narrow.
In our scenario work we tend to work from the outside (the external operating environment) in towards the organization; and from the future to back to the present. By helping our clients to develop a shared vision, and then by asking how each participant can contribute to that vision, the process tends to overcome such problems as: tunnel vision and supply/technology-push; and comments such as: "can't/won't happen"; "can't do that"; "they won't like that", etc.
From these different perspectives we find that the participants begin to see the nature of their "business" in an entirely different way; their mind-sets or "mental maps" change. An example of this is the difference between "house" which is a physical structure containing a collection of technologies and systems and "home" which is about people and their activities. A good way to start reframing is to ask: "What do we really do for our customers?" "What is our business really all about?" "How can we turn it on its head and see it differently?"
All the information above relates to the business of developing the scenarios themselves. However, our approach to scenario development provides more than just the scenarios. The process itself is of equal importance.
Scenario Development for Vision-Based Planning
The approach is shown in the diagram below. It sometimes starts with conventional desk research, if not enough is known about the organization's operating environment, but most of the work takes place as a six-day interactive workshop with the decision makers from the client organization. At the end of those six days, the client has developed a strategic vision, quantitative goals and strategies. Within 5 working days after the end of the workshop, the client has in hand the complete report in war room format.
The first three days of the process are exploratory and expansionary. We want the participants to explore their business and its operating environment "no holds barred". Deliberately we keep the participants from coming to closure, which can be very frustrating for them. In the Critical Issues Workshop the client team identifies, fleshes out, and develops 4 to 6 paramount critical issues and dilemmas, which we call "Energy Centers", using a mind-mapping technique. In a more conventional scenario project, these Energy Centers, which can be very complex, would probably themselves be called the scenarios. Then we spend two days thinking about the future. We use a varied set of techniques for exploring the future, including science fiction, creativity and psychological methods. The client team then builds much broader based, "meta scenarios" that are concerned with the fundamental issue of the organization, itself, within its operating environment. They develop extreme scenarios that are based on the changing values and motivations of the society and which also incorporate technological, political, economic and other considerations, and then examine the implications of those scenarios for the future of their business.
We have three reasons for choosing these extremes of social change to define our scenarios.
During these scenario sessions the participants consider the implications of the scenarios for the Energy Centers, critical issues and dilemmas, capabilities, stakeholders and other aspects of their organization.
In the last three days of the workshop, again using various psychological and creative techniques, the participants synthesize the ideas they have developed during the earlier stages of the project, and from that synthesis arrive at:
The vision, strategies, implementation plan and war room that come out of the workshop are necessarily at a fairly high level. This can be both a strength, and a weakness. A vision, to be effective, must be accepted and pursued throughout the organization. This requires that subordinate managers define their own contributions to the vision, goals and strategies, to which they will be committed. The vision, the framework for its achievement, the outline of the implementation plan and the war room should be given to subordinate managers who can develop the details necessary for their implementation, and who can use the same modes of communication with their own people. If this approach is cascaded down throughout the organization, a much broader acceptance of the vision and its implementation strategy can be expected, since people at every level of the organization will participate in their own way, and will generate their own commitment. If the organization does not have its own team to start the cascading process down through other levels, then implementation may well be difficult and delays will occur.
A process similar to this should be undertaken every 12 - 18 months, to enable the organization to reassess the vision, update the goals and strategies, evaluate the implementation, and evaluate stakeholder acceptance.
Coping with Change - Allowing Mindsets to Change
A mindset is a set of personal attitudes and opinions which determine an individual's world view, and they are generally difficult to change. The mindsets of organizational leaders exert a very profound influence on the organization, and rigid mindsets are among the most effective barriers to organizational change. Our experience suggests that people and (organizations) do not change their mindsets significantly in response to data, analysis or logical argument. We have found this to be true even when people have participated in conventional scenario development or other strategic planning processes. There is often a tendency for them to reject the results of the process despite the fact that they have made significant contribution to it because the results are so foreign, so far outside the boundary of their mindsets. The only successful way we have found to help people to expand their mindsets is to place them in a safe environment that enables them to set aside their concepts of the world, and to encourage them to use their minds in a totally different way. We establish the workshop environment in such a way that it is such a "safe environment" so that the scenarios are genuinely imaginative, and the participants experience alternative ideas. The experience enables them to incorporate the new ideas into their views of the future. Once they have adopted a broader mindset by participating in this kind of experiential process, they bring these changes to bear automatically on their decision making and strategy development.
There are several things which are important to note at this point. First, the "different" view which results from the occurrence of a transitional process is not the view held by our consultants. It emerges from the minds of the participants as they go through the workshop process, and in that way it is based on the professional knowledge and experience of the participants, themselves. Second, changes of this nature apparently cannot take place through intellectual discussion, or the acquisition of data. They appear to take place only through changes in peoples' experiences of their situations. Third, the physical environment of our workshops, the space in which they take place, is important. The participants must establish themselves within the space and must perceive it as a "safe" environment in which new ideas can be explored and "unthinkable ideas" can be considered.
Change is difficult and risky; but in our view if you're being swept downstream it's better to be going slightly faster than the current in order to maintain steerage, than to be carried along at the mercy of the current. In our experience we have found that the strategic planning process outlined above is a robust one in that it produces not simply the strategic plan, not simply the vision upon which the plan is based, but the frame of mind within the managers which will be necessary to guide the organization through its implementation. While no one can predict the future, managers who undertake their organization's activities with these new and expanded world views are much more likely to develop an organization that is able to deal most effectively with the unanticipated changes that the future certainly holds.
CAPT Karl Heinz, USN will discuss the practice - the experiences of Naval Special Warfare Group ONE, as it went through the first vision process in November 1995 and then through an update - sustaining the vision - in May 1997.
Note - May 2000: We have always engaged in continuous improvement of our strategic planning processes. In the time since this paper was written, we have updated and refined our approach considerably.
A Vision for the 21st Century
Our new commander was faced with a dilemma of significant proportions. The "Cold War" had ended but the "peace dividend" was proving to be exceptionally elusive. The tempo of our operations was at an all time high and the pace was increasing as the uncertainty and instability of the new security environment continued to manifest itself. Technology was proliferating at an astronomical pace and many of the "processes" we had developed and perfected over that past quarter century were showing signs of their age and pending obsolescence. Although our "customers" remained satisfied with our "product," it was clear that we needed to reassess our strategy and chart a new course for our entry into the next century. Yet we were consumed with the day-to-day activities required to maintain our "output" at the required level of quantity and quality, and time was in critically short supply. To compound matters, we were becoming more bureaucratic in our approach to problem solving when a fresh, innovative look was required.
Our commander was familiar with the process and techniques employed by Applied Futures and was confident that their novel and creative methods were right for Naval Special Warfare Group ONE (NSWG-1). He definitely wanted us to get "out of the box" for a fresh look. Accordingly, he contracted for the Applied Futures team to guide us through the process of developing a vision, goals, and strategy to maintain our competitive edge and carry us into the future. As you can imagine selecting a time and a place was no small task. With the exception of a former Commodore who was invited to provide a third party perspective, each participant was a "principal" of our larger organization: the current Commodore, his Chief Staff Officer and senior enlisted advisor, and the commanding officers of each of the subordinate commands. The participants had very little discretionary time and many viewed this process as disruptive to their main focus of effort - their operational responsibilities.
Attendance difficulties were easily overcome by selecting a time which minimized external impacts and the facility of a military order! Following the rules and guidelines established by Applied Futures for the process, the workshops were conducted at one of our remote training facilities on an island off the coast of southern California in order to minimize distractions. This location was close but isolated, offered a familiar and completely self-contained environment, and was devoid of external distractions. Furthermore, we allowed only one telephone and one FAX line in and, absent emergencies, their use was restricted to major breaks and after hours. The real challenge lay in convincing this select group of twelve highly aggressive and self-confident, "type A" personalities to genuinely commit to the spirit of the workshop process - they had no desire whatsoever to participate in anything even remotely associated with the "touchy-feely."
The process was begun in November 1995 and took five days, including a Saturday. Although the team approach to problem solving is the bedrock of Naval Special Warfare, team building is an essential part of the vision process. Some of the techniques employed by the Applied Futures Team were indeed "touchy-feely." Imagine taking the coaches of the Green Bay Packers away from the third quarter of a regular season game to a camper in the parking lot and leave the assistant coaches in charge while the team enjoyed a marginal three point lead. Then ask them to sit comfortably, place both feet on the floor, close their eyes, envision a trip to a far away place with green pastures and trees, and explain that this will help them to develop their vision of a successful season in the year 2010! You begin to get the picture...but they got us "out of the box."
We are accustomed to working hard and this was no exception - scheduled activities typically extended from 0730 to 1930 daily with brief breaks for meals or physical conditioning. We grumbled and complained and joked about the "touchy-feely" aspects of the process and some of the other tasks we were asked to do, but the process was essential to the achievement of the fresh approach we required. And we quickly got more comfortable with the process as we began to realize the new directions we began to explore. After scheduled activities were completed, we typically relaxed over a beer (a day of using the "right side of your brain" can make your head hurt!) and continued to develop the concepts and ideas unveiled during the day's sessions. This informal aspect proved to be an important contributor to the success of the overall effort.
The vision we developed was a real one - created and shared by all of us. Each concept was extensively debated and the wording carefully chosen to capture the true essence of the intent. From it we developed five, top-level goals and associated sub-goals. For instance, "Develop the Warrior" was expanded to encompass development of:
From each of these goals we developed the quantitative strategies by which to achieve them. In some respects we were too ambitious. Because of time constraints, strategies were not effectively prioritized and sponsors or "champions" were not assigned.
Change, even if constructive, is inherently disruptive and engenders a natural resistance among "stakeholders," both within and outside the organization. Generation of internal support began shortly after our return from the workshop with an assembly of the entire command. The Commodore personally explained the process and the results and won a few immediate "converts" who were enlisted to "champion" the vision within the command.
It turned out that the biggest obstacle to implementation was posed by our external stake holders - those for whom we work. The central goal of Developing the Warrior necessitated relief from certain operational commitments in order to free time. Training and operations have always existed in a "zero-sum" relationship, and this goal pushed beyond the balance at that time. The Commodore networked outside the command to build an external base of support for our Vision. People liked it and thought it was a great vision...until they realized the impact on the status quo of their current operations. Although we had anticipated this reaction and identified alternatives which would adequately address all requirements, it required a year-long campaign of staff-level briefings and meetings capped by a personal decision at the Theater Commander-in-Chief level to gain the necessary relief. Once the operational tempo was reduced, we were able to pursue the other supporting goals and strategies.
Sustaining the Vision
One certainty in life is that things change and one of the greatest challenges to continuity in a military organization is posed by the regular rotation of key personnel. By November 1997, all of the principals to the initial visioning conference will have rotated to other positions outside of Naval Special Warfare Group ONE. Would the Vision remain relevant over time and after turn-over of all the key leadership positions?
A second workshop entitled "Sustaining the Vision" was conducted at the same venue in May 1997 to reassess the validity of the Vision and our progress in its implementation. Current and prospective commanding officers of the subordinate units, the prospective Commodore, his Chief Staff Officer, and each of the original attendees were invited and encouraged to attend. Regrettably, circumstances prevented attendance by the prospective Commodore and his Chief Staff Officer.
The objectives of this project were to: evaluate and update the 1995 Vision, Goals and Strategies in the light of today's view of the future; sustain the Vision for NSWG-1 through the forthcoming change of command; and to address some specific issues that had emerged. Since almost everyone was familiar with the way of working and the types of processes designed by Applied Futures, we were able to get into the working mode very quickly, and the atmosphere was much more relaxed than that of the first workshop.
The conclusions derived from this project were that the Vision and Goals are indeed robust, strategic and enduring, and that they had gained in relevance during the past twenty months. One of the previous strategies needed a minor course correction because of a change in external factors, and one new goal with attendant strategies for accomplishment was added.
This time we went through the strategies in much greater detail, prioritized them, and established an outline plan of objectives and milestones (POA&M) for their accomplishment. Each member of the leadership team made a personal commitment to ensure that the vision, goals and strategies were implemented, and each strategy and goal was assigned a champion to be responsible for achieving it. The champions then agreed to prepare a detailed POA&M for their individually assigned tasks before the end of July. Time constraints on all of this put a great deal of pressure on the participants, but, by working many hours beyond their normal work week, they made it.
Because of the problems that we had experienced after the original project, we spent much of the last two days discussing the major stakeholders, their likely concerns, and ways in which we might get them on board. The prospective Commodore was identified as a stakeholder as were other key actors such as the theater CinC and his numbered fleet commanders.
In retrospect, we should have realized that ensuring implementation of the vision was going to take a lot of time from people who were already fully committed. We should have held a session in which each of us asked ourselves "what can I give up, in order to ensure the implementation of my goal and strategies?" But the process worked. Some of us may have grumbled about the techniques, or about the amount of time the workshops took us away from our already busy schedules, but changing mind sets is a lengthy process. Accepting change and being committed to carrying it through is not easy.
We believe that ours is a great vision, and that we are going in the right direction. The leadership and the troops are enthusiastic about the new developments and their accomplishments within the framework of the Vision.
Captain Heinz has appeared at Effective Scenario Planning in an individual capacity and not as a representative of the Naval War College, the Navy or the Department of Defense.