From Strategy to Rules of Thumb: How IBP South Africa Makes Strategy-Aligned Decisions in the Field

Most people within organizations find strategic planning, theories of change, and log frames to be a pain. Not only because formulating them is hard work but also because we never implement them, at least not as intended in the heady aftermath of putting on paper what seems to be a clear step-by-step map to mission success. The classic three- or five-year strategic plan is too likely to be completely forgotten — even by people who take strategy, reflection, and learning seriously. Months or years later, when you are forced to dig up this plan to report on a grant or to your board, you can barely remember writing it. You may even be a little relieved that your work still vaguely resembles what you promised there.

What happens? The unpredictable, ever-changing world we work in refuses to comply with the plan. So, while we don’t lose sight of our goals, we make subtle, and often not so subtle, shifts away from the plan in order to respond effectively.

I was therefore happy to read about an alternative in a recent post of Oxfam’s polished polymath, Duncan Green. He recounts the U.S. Navy Seals’ rules of thumb:

  • Stay in communication
  • Take the high ground
  • Keep moving

Presumably (I don’t know ANYTHING about the military) these are hard and fast rules that they follow in the field, leaving the rest open to interpretation, depending on the situation that they find themselves in. This is attractive as an alternative to a predetermined plan that might not fit the situation that you find yourself in (this seems to be what Matt Andrews is zooming in on in Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation). Such an approach also allows operatives to make decisions independently of the suits at headquarters. But perhaps most importantly it minimizes the all too human risk of simply forgetting the plan (just think about your new year’s resolutions, if you think that this doesn’t apply to you).

We run a pretty flat structure at IBP South Africa with all of us operating with a high level of autonomy, especially when we are out in the field. While we are all deeply socialized into the IBP way of doing things, we have never actually explicitly formulated such rules of thumb. So I’m going to jump in at the deep end here. I’ve come up with too many rules, and I need to find a way to narrow the list down to the essentials (or I’ll have just disguised a strategic plan as a set of rules of thumb). I am also hoping that my three Cape Town colleagues, and others, will help get us to a workable set in comments to this post.

IBP-South Africa’s Rules for Decisions in the Field ̶ Take One

  1. Does what you are doing empower the poor and marginalized? We are not about the rich and powerful. Nor are we about making ourselves indispensable to those that we seek to empower.
  2. We should reflect the change that we want to see in the world. The end does not justify the means.
  3. Ask for it now. Go straight to the target. Doing something for government or some other strategic partner in order to curry favor for some future ask doesn’t work. Perhaps it should. But it doesn’t.
  4. Try to engage government, but don’t ask for their permission. They will make you wait, and then turn you down.
  5. Seek more than one entry point. If you try in five places at once, one may work out. If you ask in only one, you will fail.
  6. Test your plan. Even in the field. Ask a colleague. Write it down. Phone someone. You may be missing something.

Such rules of thumb need to be backed up by solid reflection, research, and conversation. I would hope that the Seals spent a bit of time thinking about successful and failed missions before they formulated their three rules. My version of IBP-South Africa’s rules were hacked out and distilled from me and my colleagues’ 40 years of cumulative experience in the field and endless office debates over coffee (and wine). That does not make them inviolable, but it does give them some foundation.

Over the next six months or so IBP will embark on a strategic reflection process. Hopefully we will examine some of these rules of thumb, measure them up against research and the experience of others in order to sharpen and amend them. But in the end we will need to force ourselves to come back to a set of short, practical, and relevant guidelines. Or risk adding another strategic tome to the dusty shelf of oblivion.

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