Last week the cuddly entrepreneur and TV personality Lord Sir Alan Sugar fired the pleasingly accented Azhar from the midweek warm up act for Dara O’Briain’s ‘You’re Fired’, the Apprentice.
What was Azhar’s crime? Well, according to the editing crew at the Apprentice it was using the word ‘strategy’ one time every five minutes when everyone knows that the Apprentice is a seat of the pants ‘JFDI’ sort of experience.
In fairness to Azhar he took the firing fairly well and then proceeded to drop the ‘s’ bomb about fifteen times during the much more enjoyable follow up show. He also revealed that his knowledge of strategy is built from his rather successful refrigeration business which seems to be making him a fair bit of money.
As is often the case this got me thinking. To what extent does having a stated strategy actually matter? After all, as Jade (Azhar’s surviving project manager) would often point out, what’s the point of all this strategy if it prevents you from making decisions and getting on with it?
In local government we often struggle with ‘strategy’. This is for a number of reasons:
Strategies are easily forgotten and many councils end up using strategies as a way to launch new ideas or generate a buzz in the council. This leads to the local authority having multiple different strategies, none of which is particularly unique and none of them providing quite the impact that one would expect.
Service managers often see strategy as a waste of time and a distraction from the services they are trying to run. They know what their service is about and might even have their own strategy (often really a business plan) for how to run it but don’t feel that any overarching council strategy can bring anything additional to their service so they might as well not engage.
Similarly, local authorities struggle to find strategies that they can apply across the organisation. Too often there is an attempt to focus the strategy on certain key themes which are often not necessarily applicable council wide. This can lead to disintegration or an attempt to create strategies which are so broad that anything can get hung on them.
Meanwhile, those strategies are often very inward focused and therefore meaningless to the people running the organisation, the councillors. Without a strategy that engages those key stakeholders the whole thing can fizzle out very quickly indeed.
Finally, the strategies become so detailed that they cease to be, well, strategic. Instead of broad strategic themes the local authority produces something with a nice title that is really a service specific action plan and thus not overly helpful to the authority as a strategy.
With all of these strategy problems it is no wonder that councils sometimes just opt not to have one.
My council certainly doesn’t. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t do anything; in contrast we are always coming up with different approaches and innovative schemes and are generally rated as a well performing council. It’s just that none of this organisational efficiency is particularly strategic. It just happens.
I find this uncomfortable. Like Azhar I feel certain that the lack of clear unified direction will have us come a cropper eventually but unlike Azhar that moment hasn’t come yet.
Maybe local government can get away with having limited strategy because a lot of the direction comes from a national level. However, if we are to really benefit from the Government’s localism agenda council Chief Executives and Elected leaders need to think seriously about what their strategy will be and how they will design it.
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