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Strategic development: Are we missing the point?


Are we going in the right direction?

We often talk about strategic programmes and actions, but are we taking the appropriate first steps? Mike Morrison finds out.

Often we know where we want to get to, or at least have a good idea, but as the old saying goes: “If I was going there, I would not start from here.”

That is a very logical reply, even if it is not advice that is of much immediate practical value to the questioner. If you don’t know where you are going, you are not likely to get there.

It is sound advice to know where you are and where you want to end up before starting the journey. Is this why many of the tourist maps have a ‘you are here’ marker?

Where are we now? Where do we want to be?

This is a simple yet basic step in any intervention, at any level within our respective organisations. Yet what is the extent to which we really do it? Where is the ‘you are here’ marker in our organisations? Sure, some of us have tools like customer satisfaction and staff engagement data (as well as the basic business financial measures), but holistic, strategic data?

In the 2007 survey, Develop the Developers (by Morrison & Ritchie), responders to the survey provided the following answers in response to development activities:

  • Use of diagnostic approaches:
    Always (8%); usually (33%); sometimes (46%); rarely (10%); never (4%).

  • Use of evaluation approaches:
    Always (37%); usually (43%); sometimes (15%); rarely (2%); never (2%).

This highlights why much of what we do in organisational development (OD) and human resource development (HRD) fails, on a regular basis, to make the desired (and recognised) strategic impact.

“How can we ever hope to evaluate any intervention effectively if we do not know where we started from?”

We have read many threads on community forums such as and about the difficulties of evaluating activity. How to calculate a return on investment (ROI) or show value for money is a commonly recurring theme.

How can we ever hope to evaluate any intervention effectively if we do not know where we started from? We will only know this by having the same measures at the beginning of an intervention as we want to use for measuring success after the event.

In business we do it – we look at the financial position (profit, turnover etc), we set a plan to achieve it and then we measure after an agreed period of time. In medicine, before a person starts treatment we have some measures – pulse, respiration, blood pressure and so on – we measure before and after (often on going) treatment. Why, in HR and HRD, do we not do the same? Often we do for things like retention, sickness and attendance – but not for the more strategic elements.

What is a diagnostic process?

It is often simpler than it sounds. It is a tool that identifies ‘where you are now’, the dot or arrow on the map if you like. Tools like SWOT and PESTLE are alright to start with, but often these tools are not used as effectively (or broadly) as they were originally designed.

Diagnostic tools that only look at the area of the business you are interested in, for example culture surveys, have their place, but how do you know that culture is the issue – where is the diagnosis to show that a specific tool like a culture survey is the right one? There may be a need with a higher priority.

“A regular, yet effective organisational diagnostic process not only evaluates previous actions but the same data can be used to identify future needs”

It’s like going to your doctor – they will not send you for a special test or scan, until they have undertaken a more general diagnosis. In HR and OD we need to do the same. We need to use holistic diagnostic tools to help us orientate to real needs – often we react to the symptoms. It is easy to treat the cut to the hand from a fall, but if we miss the reason for the person falling – for instance, a minor stroke – sure the hand will get better, but in the mean time the stroke can do more damage.

Making evaluation easier

The more robust the diagnostic process, the easier the evaluation. Some would argue than an evaluation is just a repeat of the diagnostic but with different analysis on the results. The diagnostic is looking for an action plan; an evaluation is looking for change since the last measure. So a regular, yet effective organisational diagnostic process not only evaluates previous actions but the same data can be used (in association with a business plan) to identify future needs. Here is a simple strategic cycle:

  • Holistic diagnosis

  • Analysis

  • Plan

  • Action

  • Diagnosis

Insanity in our world?

As the saying goes, the first sign of madness is doing the same thing as before and expecting different results. It can be a bit like watching a replay of a race and expecting someone else to win. Obvious when we think about it, but why do we do this with our business activity?

Looking back at the results from the Develop the Developer survey, I wonder why many interventions are evaluated, but with little or no formal diagnostic processes undertaken at all; then we wonder why evaluation is so difficult.

Do we, as professionals, not learn? Do we keep doing the same things (no diagnosis but evaluation) and wonder why we do not add as much value as we expect? Are we ‘mad’? Maybe we are just reluctant learners.

Mike Morrison is director of RapidBI Ltd, a consultancy specialising in helping individuals and organisations improve their business performance through people and organisation effectiveness.

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