"Intelligent Opportunism" - Is there room for it in your organisation's strategic planning?

There is no doubt that the word “strategy” can excite some while sending shivers down the spines of others. For those that so strongly dislike the idea of strategic planning perhaps it is the way in which it is developed that courses concern. Strategic development is for some organisation’s a case of setting a plan in concrete in an effort to map a path towards a desired outcome. The simplest understanding of strategy is that it sets a direction to achieve a goal by a specific date.

The truth is when strategy boxes in an organisation and its activities, the spirit and proactive nature of an organisation can be destroyed. Intelligent opportunism allows for flexibility in strategic development that can act on experiences and environmental changes. Strategy benefits greatly from adaptability. Strategy at its best is evolutionary and evolves as internal decisions and external events merge.

The success and value of an evolving type of strategic thinking is dependent on factors such as the type of organisation, an organisation’s understanding of strategic development and the state of the relationship between an organisation’s leader/s and staff.

Let’s first look at the type of organisations that may or may not benefit from crafting strategy through intelligent opportunism. While a small organisation with a flat structure and steady cash flow may work well within the incremental logic model of strategic design an organisation like a Not for Profit or public service provider may struggle to reap the benefits of such strategic development. Those organisations that are likely to struggle with logical incrementalism are the type that require strong strategic documents to support funding. They may need strategic plans to prove a need for budget, gain access to government resources and support from Ministers or Elected Members while offering avenues for measuring outcomes and accountability factors.

The systems planning approach that comes from hard data and necessitates facts and figures evokes assumptions that can set about selling a need for a particular project or service to those that can provide funding (eg. Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Youth Development, etc). An experience or qualitative factor doesn’t provide the same justification for action or support as hard data used in formal planning. As a result, intelligent opportunism doesn’t provide enough structure to perhaps win contracts or offer set outcomes for a government contract that covers a three to five year period with no alterations and flexibility to cater for changing situations.

The concept of logical incrementalism could be considered a luxury. Many Chief Executives or managers may not feel they have the room to move and faith of their employers to work in such a way. A Chief Executive is likely to struggle to sell a strategy that is simply emerging. Strategy is often adopted to ensure activities are ‘nice and clear’ in which higher level staff and leaders simply form a direction for the organisation.

The concept of governance versus management may need more focus on the strategic understanding of both parties. An agreed strategic understanding for the organisation is needed to benefit from intellectual opportunism or incremental logic. Both parties need to be closely aligned in order to act quickly and respond appropriately to experiences and changing factors. A relationship of trust is required to make the most out of any strategic flexibility. All parties must simply be on the same page.

Perhaps one consideration for an organisation wanting to work through logical incrementalism is that the strategic journey is constantly reassessed through each step and that both governance and management are trained and encouraged to be open to opportunities.

If an organisation opts to work within a strategic environment open to intellectual opportunism the question becomes that of experiences and whose experiences are valued enough to make directional change. Are the experiences of lower level staff offered up and taken on board to shape a strategy or are the experiences within leadership perceived as more beneficial.
The culture within an organisation must offer a suitable avenue for communication to ensure staff at all levels can share appropriate considerations to develop strategy.

Eton Lawrence (1999) wrote “Intelligent opportunism enables the continuous shaping and reshaping of intent” in his strategic thinking discussion paper for the Public Service Commission of Canada. Which highlights another important factor in the use of logical incrementalism – intelligent opportunism is an ongoing technique. If an organisation is to develop a strategic journey utilising logical incrementalism it must be given a long duration. All too often organisations set strategy or aim to develop a strategic document within a specific period (sometimes over the of months) treating the process as a project with a beginning and end or start and finish date.

In conclusion there are virtues of incremental logic and the benefits to organisations in being open to experiences allowing various factors both hard and soft to shape strategic framework. However there are also necessary considerations for organisations working within a strategic thinking framework that values intelligent opportunism. Logical incrementalism simply may not be as beneficial for some as others. Below are questions which need to be considered by organisations prior to using the approach:

  • Is the relationship between the governance arm of the organisation and management side healthy, trusting and on the same page?

  • Do both parties have the same understanding of strategy and strategic planning?

  • What is the desired outcome of strategic thinking? An action plan, an instruction document or a framework for activities?

  • Is the development of strategy something that has to be completed by a certain date or is it an ongoing journey for staff and leadership?

  • Is the aim of strategy developed for a prescribed lifespan and then reassessed at certain points or is it a living document?

  • Will avenues be put in place to ensure all staff are encouraged to think strategically?

  • Have you got room to be open to experiences and opportunities or is a specific direction required in advance to seek funding for projects? Is the organisation’s work dependant on setting activities and strategy to meet outcomes?

Amanda HemaComment