Star Wars Strategic Planning for Business Psychologists

Star Wars Strategic Planning for Business Psychologists


Long ago in a galaxy far, far away business leaders learned the fundamentals of strategic planning. The developmental storyline was often carefully crafted like the ritualistic formulas in a Star Wars movie by George Lucas. However, instead of movie scriptwriters, the strategic message was intentionally adapted from the prolific thinking of business school academics, highly paid consulting firms, and corporate staff planners.

The long-range planning originating message, in the shape of the Chief Executive Officer’s strategic intent, was judiciously passed down to a chosen organizational few. Its support came not from stone tablets or futuristic movies but via information contained in trendy MBA seminars or esoteric business books with long titles. Sometimes it arrived in the pre-packaged form of lengthy monographs filled with formulas, two by two matrices and lots of graphs. The emphasis was on facts, logic, foresight, and five-year forecasts.

In a well-choreographed organizational ritual dance, senior leadership groups came together every year for several days to hash out and update their particular organization’s future strategic plans. For well-funded organizations, strategic planning sessions might be opened with a presentation by a futurist or an academic who had recently published a glowingly-received book or an article in the Harvard Business Review. Armed with tables of numbers, calculations, and year-over-year projections, subordinate managers made well-rehearsed standup presentations on their piece of the business, argued over details, socialized, and agreed to do it again next year.

The strategic planning group members usually left the sessions grateful that it was over and eager to get back to the real work of running their organization. The total package of presented information was carefully cataloged in multiple, often precisely indexed, and color-coded binders. The binders were meticulously organized by topic, timelines, tasks, and designated responsibilities.

Upon the planning group members return to their offices, the binders were dutifully placed on sturdy shelves. The binder contents were then promptly forgotten, only to be resurrected again and updated in advance preparation for the next year’s strategy session. It was a relatively easy and predictable process. The future was perceived as a linear, sensible, and rational extension of the past. Since the external environment was considered to be relatively benign and stable, risk could be minimized, and gains calculated within an acceptable margin of error.

What’s different now?

So, what has changed from those Halcion days of the recent past? What has happened between the end of the twentieth century and the first decades of the twenty-first? Enter VUCA. VUCA is an acronym derived from the United States military’s experience in the Cold War by the faculty at the United States Army War College. It stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

Volatility is the factor concerned with the frequency, speed, reversibility, and salience of change. Uncertainty is related to the lack of predictability of certain events and outcomes. Complexity involves the number of factors involved and the degree of their interconnectedness.

Together the VUCA factors add up to environments that are chaotic, translucent, and relatively unintelligible. It is something like looking at a moving world through frosted glass. You know something is going on but can’t be exactly sure what it is. There is enough light so you can make out fuzzy images and shifting shapes but little else.

In combination, these VUCA factors tend to make traditional strategic planning processes mostly unworkable, inefficient, and unproductive. Thus, for many organizations, the strategic planning processes they have depended on are no longer providing worthwhile value. Basically, the world is now moving too fast for these processes to be useful and have any degree of validity.

Comparison by century

The dramatic nature of the change differences between then and now can be illustrated by contrasting the alteration in prevailing management models over time. Author Idris Mootee in his 2013 book Design thinking for strategic innovation (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, p.22) has captured the essence of the differences.

It appears that social and technical change in just a few decades has not only accelerated but the rate of change has too. Somehow, without our really noticing it, change has jumped from an arithmetic to a geometric scale. This seems to have happened while we were preoccupied doing something else. Seemingly, tipping points that move us from measuring in incremental units to quantum units are reached in ever-shorter periods of time. Subjectively, large-scale innovative disruptions have become more frequent and unsettling while spreading faster than ever before.

Patterns and themes in the current Literature

Recently, I had the opportunity to identify significant ideas arising from a review of the current literature on strategic planning. Patterns and themes emerging from the review appear to have potential value to the Business Psychologist. Patterns included:

• The movement from industrial and information based economies toward the emergence of experiences-based ones in technologically advanced first-world countries.
• Individual and group innovation as the key vehicle that transforms external and internal chaos into the order of useful products, products, and processes
• Carefully exploited innovation is a key differentiator between flourishing and unsuccessful businesses.
• The element of Design is a critical and growing aspect of fruitful innovation throughout the business cycle.
• Successful organizations appear to need adaptive-oriented employees to more efficiently manage and operate existing engines of performance and need more innovative individuals to create and develop new ones.
• Over time, without direct leadership intervention, organizations tend to drive out their most innovative people.
• Ongoing CEO-mediated internal conflict between new, future-growth oriented units and established core business units for resources is required for successful organizations.
• Significant mindset differences are required to manage innovative startup units as opposed to sustaining the performance of existing core units.
• The recognition that experiences are becoming products in their own right.

Themes identified included:

• Innovation originating in Third World countries is beginning to surface as a promising, necessity-driven, source of innovation that has application in the first and developing worlds. Such innovation can upset the existing order of things.
• The rise of ambidextrous leaders who can simultaneously support two conflicting types of activities; current revenue producing core operations and those related to generating future growth.
• Creativity is widely, as opposed to narrowly, distributed in organizations. Under the right conditions just about everyone can be creative.
• Creativity alone is not enough. Too many ideas can be as problematic as too few.
• Thriving intra and inter-organization innovation requires a clear, leadership-underwritten process. What ideas to support with increased attention and resources on the path toward better products, processes, and services is an ongoing challenge.
• Designer-influenced thinking shows promise for executives as a means for developing competitive advantage.
• Innovation is not a unitary construct; according to some experts there may be as many as ten different types of innovation.
• Successful innovation can be a top-down, bottom-up or a blended process. Whatever the process it must be consistent with the cultural values of the organization.
• Both management (focus on task execution and control of resources) and leadership (focus on strategy and change) are necessary for sustained organizational success.
• Core revenue-generating business functions are under considerable tension to generate funds to support both future growth and stabilize current operations.
• Combating employee complacency is increasingly seen as only a partial antidote to the acceptance of creeping performance failure. How to generate increased member engagement and self-motivation are at the cutting edge in human resources management.
• In prospering organizations, there is strategic alignment and active engagement of the board of directors with organizational leadership.

What Business Psychologists can contribute

Potentially, Business Psychologists have a great deal to offer to better inform and enhance the strategic thinking and planning process. With an emphasis on integrating the human and technical sides of business, as well as an understanding of how the business brain works, business psychologists are able to provide a more integrated strategic thinking perspective. The promise is to achieve more useful business results by recognizing the impact of emotions as well as cognition and the influence of unconscious processes on decision making,
In essence, perhaps the greatest assistance that Business Psychologists can give to leadership and organizations is an integrated perspective.

This combinatorial viewpoint is offered, along with positive encouragement and practical help, as support for organizations dealing with the strategic, operational, and tactical paradoxes of modern business life. From our synthesis of the fields of business and psychology we can offer a menu of healthy hybrid fare to organizations that can benefit from our education, experiences, and expertise.

The millennial change of management models can offer us great opportunities to make a difference in the lives of individuals and organizations. Here the words of Charles O’Reilly and Michael Tushman in their 2016 book Lead and disrupt (Stanford, CA: Stanford Business Books, p.34) seem prophetic. “So we have a paradox: the alignment of the formal control system (structure and metrics-or organizational hardware) and of the social control system (norms, values and behavior- or organizational software) is critical to the successful execution of the strategy. But these also foster the organizational inertia that can make it difficult to change, even in the face of clear threats.”
So, bring on the paradoxes. In the words of the immortal Star Wars film master Jedi, Yoda, “Let the force be with us (Business Psychologists).”

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