Why strategy directors shouldn’t write strategies

We build institutions to do useful things. Provide healthcare, pick up the bins, provide a secure place to manage our money, deal with crime. The problem is that there almost always comes a point where the logic flips, and the need to maintain the organisation starts to overwhelm the useful thing.

We can see examples of this all around us. My favourites are in the criminal justice arena. Drug policy is an institution that has become useless at stopping people from accessing intoxicants, while actively encouraging the creation of a brutal criminal infrastructure. Prisons work to reduce crime only in the limited sense that they temporarily keep some potential criminals off the streets, in rotten conditions and at great expense.

But the point is true in other areas as well. My wife has been studying obesity and weight management, and bamboozled me the other day with the idea that the dieting industry might actually drive weight gain, because it does so little to help people change their lifestyle to sustain weight loss.

The eagle-eyed among you will spot that I’ve been reading Ivan Ilych, the anarch-ish theologian of the early 70s who famously argued for de-schooling. In his mind, this meant that education should be removed from the classroom and turned into a peer-to-peer activity. Ilych would hymn ideas like training workers to be doctors and have them voluntarily aid their fellow proletarians in factories.

This last example comes from Mao’s China, which tells us a lot about how radicals of the later 60s and early 70s were utterly taken in by the miserable disaster of the cultural revolution. It also tells you something about the limits of Ilych’s thinking.

It is tempting to think that councils might be immune to this tendency to institution-itis. We are, after all, democratic bodies often covering quite small territories. Surely our political dynamics provide at least some protection from reification? There is a point here — we are more open to democratic challenge than our public sector partners in areas like the NHS. But we musn’t kid ourselves.

The estimable Cormac Russell — a fascinating thinker on community development — has written a blog in which he argues, simply and correctly, that: ‘ Local governments throughout the world, for example, have become so focused on the provision of statutory services that they have failed to attend to their functions as stewards of local democracy.’

The pressures of austerity are indeed forcing us back onto our statutory core services, to the extent that many of the sector’s leading thinkers would transparently prefer greater central funding to more local freedom (the academic community, incidentally, seems to universally take this line). A choice between money and freedom is pretty wretched, but if we’re clear that we will always prefer the former then radical devolution is never likely to happen. Central money always come with strings.

Part of the answer to austerity has to come back to Ivan Ilych and his call for de-institutionalisation. I think we can already see elements of this in local government practice. For instance, my colleagues in adults at Redbridge are currently implementing a model called three conversations. Instead of making vulnerable people jump through a load of assessment hoops, they start by asking simple questions about what our residents want to achieve in their lives and how we can help them get through crisis situations and build their social networks. Early results are promising.

My team is trying to take this approach a step or two further with a cross-council change programme around the way we engage with residents. Some of this is just about building a decent foundation — we need to create a community of the people who do engagement across the council, sort out our approach to social value and procurement, open up our data and assets etc etc. We are going to work with services to help them develop and integrate their area-based approaches to working.

But the really exciting stuff will be about the ways we try and prime the community to become more active. Could we build something like Co-Lab Dudley? Hack days to help communities develop better ideas for using CIL money? Networks of community co-researchers to help us make better decisions? There’s loads of scope, and we’ll be exploring the options through a fortnight of events on neighbourhoods in February.

Strategy is a product of institutionalism. As organisations become larger, more professionalised, and therefore more siloed, they require new teams to provide coordination. This is a bit like trying to kick your coffee addiction by drinking even more of the stuff. At its worst, strategy becomes about attempts to engineer reality to fit a top down narrative through the medium of graphs. To quote Auden: ‘Out of the air a voice without a face/ Proved by statistics that some cause was just/ In tones as dry and level as the place: No one was cheered and nothing was discussed.’

So don’t write strategies. At best they give institutions the time they need to mobilise against the change you want to create. Do something else. Tell a story that mobilises people. Try to inspire by example. Open up new possibilities with which others can experiment. Try and shift culture. Provide tools for change that let others find their own voices to challenge structures. Switch off your strategy mindset and go out and do something less boring instead.

If you absolutely have to, you can produce a diagram.