Union of Intelligible Associations
Union of Intelligible Associations

Projects Overview (Explanations)
Global Strategies Project (Explanations)

Strategic denial: Unwritten rules and wishful thinking

Global Strategies Project


1. Investment in strategies

The past decades have seen a great deal of enthusiasm for the formulation of strategies, programmes and plans in response to social challenges. Whether in intergovernmental organizations, such as United Nations agencies, or in other international organizations, or at the regional, national or local level, formulation of strategies has been seen as an appropriate form of action.

The distillation of policy and management insights into strategy formulation has gone largely unquestioned as a process. With respect to most issues, there is now a basic commitment to the logic of evoking consensus around a global plan of some kind.

This whole mind-set has owed a great deal to the developments in management and strategic thinking in business enterprises, especially in multinational corporations. Many of the largest corporations invest heavily in the articulation of forward-looking strategies capable of mobilizing their decentralized resources around the world in support of a coherent strategy capable of offering them a competitive advantage with respect to their competitors. Business management schools have educated several generations of managers towards this end.

2. Inexplicable failures

In this context it is therefore important to note the results of a recent survey of 350 major corporations in the USA, most of which were in the midst of a major change initiative in response to economic challenges and opportunities -- whether labelled as a strategy or a plan. According to Peter Scott-Morgan, consultant to Arthur D Little, only 17 percent of the corporations were really satisfied with their initiatives. Almost 40 percent were positively unsatisfied, whether due to partial success or unforeseen delays. Nearly 70 percent reported unforeseen problems and unintended side-effects. Perhaps of most significance, 65 percent indicated that their initiatives had been damaged by lack of effective support from managers and employers, as well as by territorial battles of the usual kind. In commenting on these results, Scott-Morgan notes (in The Unwritten Rules of the Game, 1994) that they correspond to those of other similar surveys elsewhere.

For international non-commercial enterprises such results have devastating implications. They suggest that effective evaluation of the many international strategies and programmes, if such were possible, is likely to highlight even greater weaknesses. The reason for this is that commercial corporations at least benefit from the advantage of clear authority structures, unambiguous "bottom-line" objectives, and the ability to remove individuals perceived as blocking effective implementation of any strategy. They also benefit from the best strategic skills and management expertise that money can buy. This is seldom the case in complex, multi-cultural international institutions and coalitions where political compromises are always necessary. Furthermore, it is usually extremely difficult to remove obstructive individuals from such contexts until the end of their agreed period of office. Most of these difficulties are necessarily disguised by upbeat reporting, especially for public relations purposes.

3. Implication for global strategies

Such concerns raise the question as to the degree to which the many international strategies are purely public relations exercises and undertaken purely for such purposes. The process of formulating global strategies can be very effectively used to arouse sympathies, develop coalitions, focus attention and ensure many useful forms of communication. This is necessary. Whether it is sufficient is another matter.

It has been frequently noted that within the former Soviet Union the constitution and system of laws were often very enlightened in their sensitivity to the principle social and other issues. The problem was the total lack of relationship between the articulation of intentions and actual implementation. It is then easier to understand and justify such legislation if it is seen as a laudable effort to articulate an ideal -- as with New Year's resolutions.

After the enthusiasm and struggle to elaborate a global programme, of interest to media communication and political image formation, comes another kind of struggle to ensure that pledged resources are really allocated and that solemn commitments give rise to concrete actions. Many global plans of action falter at this point. There is often little political mileage in implementation, especially when counter-pressures can only be satisfied by "watering down" and "rolling back" earlier commitments.

4. Unwritten rules

Scott-Morgan makes the additional point that, whatever the declared intentions or the weakening of resolve, hidden or unwritten rules come into play to undermine any strategy. The strategy may continue to look good on paper. Implementation procedures may look rigorous. Nevertheless forces, even within a relatively homogeneous organization, conspire to severely weaken the strategy relative to the original expectations. Scott-Morgan remarks that even the chief executive officers of major corporations have difficulty in coming to grips with this phenomenon and are worried that they no longer understand what is going on.

Under such circumstances, there is a need to be extremely concerned about the possibilities of effectively implementing the major strategies which are the apparent focus of the attention of the international community, whether with respect to the environment, health, education or employment.

5. Wishful thinking

On the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations, there have been calls for candour about its actual operations. In this spirit there is a need to distinguish between laudable articulation of strategic ideals and the degree to which these are implemented in practice -- independently of public relations exercises designed to reinforce wishful thinking. Attention is required to the unwritten rules of the game which are undermining our best initiatives. Scott-Morgan opens the debate in a useful manner.

The dominant concern with formulating a single strategy, and attracting widespread adherence to it, may be fatally flawed. Alternative interpretations of the performance of such global plans could well suggest that dependence on them is not as appropriate as is widely assumed.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential