Have pity on me. Say a prayer. Drop a penny in the pond on my behalf. In a few days I have to go to a non-profit’s strategic planning meeting. It’s a great organization that does great things, but – like so many non-profits – it periodically seeks to cleanse and refresh itself by turning what it does into indecipherable abstractions. I’ll survive and maybe there’ll be some good food, but, as a general rule, I don’t do strategic visions.
Still it’s happening all over America. “Strategic plan” and its semantic variations have appeared on Google seven million times just in the past month. On the Review’s list of cliches that’s right between “empower” and that ultimate expression of corporate insincerity – “any inconvenience” – you know, the one for which everyone apologizes.
Strategic planning, in its non-military sense, got its start at the Harvard Business School in the 1920s. Not long after we had the Great Depression. The concept had a revival in the 1980s and contributed to the philosophy and practices that have left us with the Penultimate Great Depression.
Coincidence, perhaps, but bear in mind that in the 1950s – when the economy was booming – we were turning out only 5,000 MBAs a year. The number of people in business who had any idea of about strategic planning was minute. By 2005, we were churning out 142,000 MBAs a year and we had huge trade and budget deficits, a disappearing auto industry, one of our most costly and disastrous wars, a growing gap between rich and poor, and a constantly projected inability to care for our ill or elderly.
Worse, everyone in the country had been infected by corporate verbiage and values. And, often unconsciously, much of America had bought into the rightwing and absurdly simplistic Reaganesque view of life and the very voices that should have been among the loudest in opposition – non-profits – signed up as well.
Non-profits found that it helped to adopt the language of business. It made them seem responsible rather than just over-idealistic do-gooders. It also reflected one of the most misguided assumptions of the educated elite: if one can understand, identify, manipulate and be loyal to abstract principles, the specifics will obediently follow.
Editors and reporters, among others, know better. Reporters run into this sort of language constantly at news conferences and elsewhere. They have a professional term for it: bullshit.
And editors know that a reporter may come up with a great idea for a story and even have a strategy for carrying it out, but if the journalist doesn’t know how find the right sources, or ask the right questions and write it all down, the strategy won’t work.
Over the past three decades corporations have done an incredibly effective job of turning Americans into just so many more corporate employees desperate for a strategic vision that will foster formulations of actions and processes to be taken to attain the vision in accordance with agreed upon procedures in order to achieve a hierarchy of goals. It has – with bombast, bullying and baloney – convinced an extraordinary number of Americans that its childishly verbose and coldly abstract culture is transferable to every human activity from running a church to driving a tractor across a field.
Unfortunately, life doesn’t work like that. You need to look no farther than the military to see this. During the post-war period when the US military devoted more effort to strategic planning that at any time in its history, it has also had the sorriest record. Over and over, the problem has been an attractive general principle overwhelmed or sabotaged by reality and facts.
Now bounce back 150 years to a war in which general strategy was more than balanced by specific generals. At one point a White House aide complained of General Grant’s drinking and Lincoln invoked his best management practices – which was to tell the aide to find out what Grant was drinking and give it to all his other generals. Put that in your vision statement.
And the key battle at Little Round Top was won by a general named Joshua Chamberlain who had studied theology, taught ever subject except science and math and was fluent in nine languages. He had, however, never study military strategy.
In any specific situation, a general strategy can quickly lose value without supporting virtues like wisdom, sufficient staff, adequate budget, imagination, energy and good fortune.
But of course, if all else fails, you can always fall back on your mission statement.
Like most people, I never read mission statements except under duress or when I have nothing better to do, like standing in the lobby of a pretentious restaurant waiting to be seated.
Gordon Luk said it well: “The easy and fun way to test whether a mission statement. . . is garbage is to negate it and see whether it still holds up. If a mission statement does not make sense for a company not to do, then why even bother stating the obvious?
“Striving to be a leader in a field? Of course you are – you better not be trying to come in dead last. . .
“Trying to connect people to passions or interests? Hell, why not disconnect them instead!. . .
“Douglas Adams wrote frequently about the human penchant for continuously stating the very, very obvious. Mission statements take that principle to the extreme, to the point where we even believe that we’re going to persuade people about something or other by making an official public statement about what we are going to do that would be insane to negate.”
Occasionally a mission statement rises to the occasion. The alternative newspaper Eat the State had one that read: “Missions were created by the Catholic Church to subjugate Native Americans in California. We oppose them.” And a small computer consultancy business in West London posted a sign: ‘We are not ruled by a mission statement, we are smarter than that’. But when you start to count the number of organizations – from religious to non-profit to social to political – that feel they can’t get along without some gobbledygook on the inside cover of whatever they’re publishing, you know the corporate cultural invasion is complete.
Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have plans, think about where you’re going, discuss alternatives and figure out what you do best. But the better model should be the pragmatism, inventiveness and realism of small business culture which still provides most of America’s new jobs – as many as 75 percent in some experts’ view. Most small business people don’t have time to sit around a table coming up with empty adjectives to describe their efforts. And they tend to call the people who buy their stuff customers rather than stakeholders, which makes sense, given that the pre-corporate definition of stakeholder was someone who held the bet during a gambling match and handed it over to the winner. Not a particularly exciting or profitable role in life.
Here’s how David Weinberger put in back in 1999:
“Mission statements are vapid because they think of business as a march to a goal or a war of conquest. Businesses are far more complex than that. . . Further, missions are things you accomplish and are done with. Businesses, on the other hand, generally aim for long-term existence. The board doesn’t get together and say, “Well, we’ve accomplished our mission of being the world’s leading supplier of high quality wombats to blind gombricks, so I guess we can just shut it all down now. Good job, lads!”
“Businesses often are more like farming than like making war. How can we get maximum sustainable yield from this ground? And what happens when the ground changes radically? Are we going to keep trying to grow potatoes in the layer of ash, or are we going to see this as a splendid opportunity to succeed with ash-loving radishes?
“So, yes, write up something about your commitment to treating your customers well, building great products, and contributing to the lives of your employees and your community. Heck, even admit that you’re in it for the money. But one thing is certain: if your mission statement achieves the usual goal of fitting on the back of a business card, then it’s just about guaranteed to be empty of anything worth saying.”
Which is why I don’t look forward to my afternoon of strategic planning. We will declare, no doubt, some fine principles, but life is controlled not by the glories of the grand but by the uncertainties, blessings and perversities of the specific. It is in organizing the latter in some rational, useful, imaginative and, yes, enjoyable fashion that life becomes better. As Benjamin Franklin noted, happiness is not the result of great strokes of good fortune, but of the “little felicities” of every day.
Meanwhile, if you are still curious about my personal vision statement, please consult my optometrist.