Planning and strategy is always vital. As the old saying goes, ‘If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.’ You and your team don’t want to find yourselves on the ‘bus to Abilene’, as introduced by Jerry Harvey in his 1988 article, The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement. We have seen this scenario play out in unintended consequences in the military, government, and business. Your strategy is the roadmap and your culture is the glue that holds it all together during the trip. The worst of all circumstances is an organization without strategic direction, with a dysfunctional culture. Working hard, but going nowhere.
Our focus on 28 August 2014 was on President Obama, who shockingly stated during a press conference that ‘we don’t have a strategy to deal with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)’. This frankly comes as no surprise and our sense is that the ship of state is indeed rudderless. No business leader would or should accept this lack of strategic foresight and direction in their organization. Why should we accept it in our government? America deserves better. Our troops and their families certainly deserve better.
The shocking truth is that the US Government does not have a defined strategic planning process that deliberately involves all 18 departments and major agencies of the executive branch of the US Government. Outside of the Department of Defense, there is no defined planning process and no trained planners. No one is in charge of what should be a fundamental interagency function. What is disingenuously labeled strategic planning is done within the confines of the small and inexperienced White House staff, the ultimate stovepipe. As a consequence, we get what we deserve. The process is politicized, there is no government-wide unity of effort, and there is no buy-in or commitment across the government’s interagency. Sadly, the ends, ways, and means never seem to be in balance. The analogy in business is that without an effective strategic planning process, bankruptcy looms. In government, we put our nation at risk.
There is a solution, but it will take strong leadership, a large dose of persistence, and Congress will need to step up to the task. We believe that a model is the Goldwater–Nichols Reorganization Act of 1986 which turned the Department of Defense on its ear, and among other things, brought the military services onto the same page (no small feat) and defined operational and strategic planning processes which now set the standard in Washington, DC. As a consequence, however, every problem now looks like a nail and every solution requires a sledgehammer. The reality, of course, is that every problem requires a multi-disciplined approach to involve and synchronize a number of tools in the tool box, to include economic measures, diplomacy to galvanize the community of responsible nations, actions to address extreme ideology, education, quality of life, health care, and much more. The last resort should be the use of force.
Until the US Government creates and implements a deliberate strategic planning process that engages the entire interagency, we’ll never solve the complex problems of employment, health care, immigration, education, trade imbalances, and yes, Islamic extremism. The US Government is now too big and cumbersome to not be guided by a deliberate, interagency strategic planning process. America needs to get off the ‘bus to Abilene’.
Business leaders understand the importance of strategic planning to ensure business plans are effective to increase profits, exceed goals, and come out on top. We insist on focus and clarity of mission. The same must be true for the US Government. It’s time for strategic leadership.