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Global Strategies Project (Explanations)

Strategic denial: Action inhibition

Global Strategies Project

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1. Action avoidance

It is readily assumed that strategies and solutions imply that something is "being done". Remedial responses to problem situations typically call for action of some kind. However any actual remedial action may require preparatory phases during which the nature of the required action is clarified and an appropriate level of support for it is obtained. Such preliminary phases can lend themselves to criticism as failing to contribute immediately to direct action on the problem -- including relief of any suffering associated with it. Such criticism may be especially sharp in the case of what are perceived to be emergencies.

It is also the case that phases preparing for remedial action may be relatively easier to undertake than the remedial action itself. It may also be far less controversial. Resources may be easier to obtain. Preparatory phases may also avoid any disruption to patterns of vested interests which can resist the action itself. A given preparatory phase may provide a cherished role for a profession, discipline or department -- which is naturally reluctant to question its relevance to the remedial action itself. There may be little concern as to whether the preparatory phase serves any subsequent phase. There may be reluctance to bring it to a conclusion or to terminate it.

In seeking to maintain their position with respect to their constituencies and sources of funds, institutions may find it necessary to present preparatory phases as more critical to remedial action than may in fact be the case. The degree of distance from remedial action may be obscured in different ways -- whether deliberately or inadvertently. There is need for a certain vigilance concerning ways in which strategic responses may be abused to disguise diffident or ineffectual institutional initiatives.

2. Approaches to strategy formulation

Faced with the challenges of the present and foreseeable future, it could be argued that several different approaches are taken in formulating strategies:

  • the pessimists, otherwise referred to as the doom-mongers, who draw attention to the multiplicity of problems and the questionable ability of society to respond to them by any adequate strategy;
  • the cynics, who, whether or not they are well-informed concerning strategic initiatives, are primarily concerned to profit personally from the situation as best they can, accepting that others will be doing the same;
  • the optimists, who assiduously present the good news, rejecting any consideration, of difficulties, demonstrating how tangible progress is being made, wherever such progress can be detected, especially through particular local or international strategies;
  • the naive, who attach little importance to any need to consider matters beyond their immediate ken, and are insensitive to the ways that they may be affected by the future if no broader strategies are formulated;
  • the fatalists, who look primarily to the possibility of some form of apocalyptic release in the light of predictions or interpretations of sacred texts, and therefore attach little importance to any strategic initiative by humanity.
  • the ideologues, possessed with a particular insight into the nature of the appropriate strategic response, anxious to communicate it as widely and rapidly as possible, and deeply concerned by the risks to society of those who oppose them or recommend alternatives.

3. Essential incompatibility

These and other perspectives are of course all represented to some degree in everyone. From a larger perspective they reflect postures and psycho-social functions which are each important to the survival of the collectivity (as argued by Edward de Bono, Six Thinking Hats). But from a narrower perspective their mutual incompatibility is another feature of the apparent fragmentation of society and the inability to evoke the necessary political will for social transformation appropriate to the challenge. A healthy strategic environment might be said to be one in which all such perspectives were active but appropriately balanced. It is the nature of this balance which it is difficult to comprehend.

4. Mutual inhibition and exclusion

A common factor in all these strategic perspectives is the manner in which each impedes any comprehension of an alternative perspective. The favoured posture may be compared to the use of wall-paper to paper over the cracks in a wall. Each strategic posture desensitizes its advocates to the perspectives offered by the others.

In the absence of any broader framework to interrelate these essentially complementary strategic postures, the "wall-papering" process is a cause for concern. This conceptual process feeds on denial and breeds complacency. It handicaps efforts to integrate fundamentally different strategic postures capable of providing the requisite strategic variety for an adequate response.

Whether amongst colleagues, or through media presentations, or even in the privacy of one's own thoughts, there is usually a strong investment in a particular posture at a particular time. This posture calls for justification and rationalization. It must be defended against challenges from alternative postures. Dissonant perspectives are necessarily difficult to tolerate. It is for this reason that the "wall-paper" appears to work for those surrounded by it.

Even major global strategies fall victim to such "wall-papering". Reference to dissident perspectives is effectively excluded from the record in the name of consensus. The agreed strategy denies its own status as a compromise and obscures the dynamic context from which it was born. The dissident perspectives do not however disappear. They breed alternative strategies, or divert resources and political will so as to undermine what is promulgated as a global strategy.

There is a fundamental need to move beyond satisfaction with what amounts to conceptual "interior decoration" in the elaboration of strategies.


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential


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