I was out of the office today for a course on ‘strategic thinking’. It’s always good to have a bit of a change in routine and chance to meet other civil servants from across government.
I went on this course after some feedback from a recent job interview that I had been unsuccessful because I wasn’t as ‘strategic’ as the person who eventually got the job. I’m still trying to process that and figure out exactly what it meant – how I came across as lacking in ‘strategic thinking’ in the interview, and whether I am genuinely not getting/misunderstanding what strategic thinking actually entails.
It was a very good course, given by an excellent trainer and held in the business suite of a seriously upmarket hotel. The lunch was to die for and I would seriously like to be able to return and spend a night there as a guest, just for the pampering. Better check the bank account first, though.
The training room was relatively ordinary as these things go, but here are a couple of pictures I took before most people arrived (yes, I was second person to get there – damn my obsessive-compulsive punctuality!):
The course started with the question, “what is strategy?” – we suggested “plan of attack” but the Open University definition was probably best of all: “charting the course of an organisation in shifting environment through time.” Another definition added, “not a detailed plan or program of instructions, it is a unifying theme.” Talk of vision, values, mission and workstreams flowed fast from that start.
As good as the trainer was, the best thing about the course was actually the other attendees. Normally when I go on a training course, everyone else is from a commercial company; I can’t remember the last time it was all government civil servants. We had people from the Department of Transport (still getting over the news of their Secretary of State, Ruth Kelly, having resigned), the Home Office, UK Trade and Investment, the Pensions Regulator, the Legal Services Commission and many others. For the first time at a course, I didn’t have to launch into my ‘elevator pitch’ of what COI is and does, which I normally have to do when on one of these things: they knew already!
A lot of the day was spent comparing our experiences of creating, testing and following strategies within the public sector, with all the unique issues that entails – such as political uncertainties (I write this a week before an anticipated ministerial reshuffle for example, and 18 months at most before an election that looks like it could change the party in power) and media and public scrutiny that no commercial company would normally attract.
As the trainer pointed out, government undertakes bigger, costlier and longer-term projects than any private sector company could ever dream of committing to. And it’s not like there’s a standard playbook showing the ‘industry standard’ approach to these things. So when we also have some of the biggest and most high-profile mishaps in projects, it’s not altogether surprising. Which is not to say that it shouldn’t be done better and that the mishaps are acceptable, only that we work in a unique environment and credit where its due to sometimes unfairly maligned civil servants.
There’s an interesting chicken/egg question for public sector strategy: which comes first, the policy or the strategy? If you check with the National Audit Office and the Cabinet Office, you’ll get the answer: unfortunately, these top two leading voices in government best practice give completely contradictory answers. And I can see why: it’s rather like one of those optical illusion pictures that look like one thing one minute but then you ‘flip’ and see the other view.
Most of the people on the course work for ‘proper’ government departments, either developing policy, creating implementation strategies or working on the operational side. So not for the first time, COI didn’t quite fit in – we have one foot in the government camp but the other foot in the commercial procurement/advertising worlds and it can mean not being fully at home in either. There were several negative comments about the impact of the media, for example, which I felt compelled to push back against as the media is my bread and butter. And the media’s problems are often the crystallisation of bigger problems overall, at least from what I’ve seen.
But it did cheer me when I saw the approved model for the structure of a policy document – Foreword, executive summary, introduction, issues, etc. It looked familiar … because it’s virtually the same format (except for terminology) as the template we use to produce Invitations to Tender to our media agencies for a project. Looks like we’re doing something right!
Did the course solve my mystery about why I didn’t get that job? Well … No. All it did was confirm that strategic thinking is what I do every day, every time I sit down with a client or stakeholders to scope out a new project. And by all accounts I’m pretty good at that, so what’s this ‘strategic’ that I fell short on before? Hmm, maybe I need an ‘Advanced Strategic Thinking’ course next …
But on the plus side, this did reinforce that I do the right things for my clients, follow good practice – and give me a few new tools that I wasn’t aware of before such as the “suitability/acceptability/feasibility” method of analysing the robustness of a strategy. I’ll definitely use that more, and it’s already flagged up to me the weak spots of a major project I’m working on at the moment. And I met a good bunch of people, and had some very good food!
The only distraction to the day was a minor work crisis, which was demanding attention via emails and voicemails on my BlackBerry, which meant I had to miss the start of a session to deal with it. Not that I could do anything much from out of the office of course, so it had to wait till I got home instead.
With the emails piling up, I dallied a while in the lounge area after the course finished as the hotel’s pianist started off a medley of film music (including the Deer Hunter and The Godfather, no less). Sitting there, reading and sending emails on the BlackBerry, I felt rather like a proper business executive doing important executive work: I can’t be sure what else I’ll take from the course, but the boost to ego was certainly complete by the time I set foot outside the door and returned to the dreary grey and wet world.