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Should a strategic plan more closely resemble a phone book, or a to-do list?

I’ve come to realize that not only to people disagree on the answer, but they often don’t even realize that there’s a question. They think there’s only one way.

The goal of the phone book model is to ensure that everyone is in it.  In this model, a good plan is one in which everyone is named, and everything is connected to everything else.  Ideally, each area (department, program, or center) writes its own section, so everyone can do what they want. Typically, when it comes time to act, there isn’t anywhere near enough money or time to do everything.  The plan then moves to a shelf, where it sits, undisturbed, until it’s time for the next plan. Meanwhile, actual decisions are made reactively, compelled by circumstances.

The goal of a to-do list is to set out a manageable number of things to get done, and then to get them done.  Effective to-do lists are short, by design. They leave a lot out. Many people won’t see themselves mentioned.  But that’s how to-do lists work. They’re like roadmaps; by simplifying the environment and focusing only on some basics, they make it easier to get from point A to point B.  My directions to Newark airport go like this: Route 9 to the Parkway to the Turnpike to 13A. I don’t mention the names of individual towns the route goes through, or any of the history or features of any of them.  It wouldn’t help; if anything, it would confuse matters. “Reductionism” is key to usefulness.

During flush times, there may be an argument for the phone-book model.  It offers a sort of recognition, and the discussions can sometimes lead to internal bridge-building.  And when resources are plentiful, there may be enough to accomplish a non-embarrassing number of the goals identified.  Cynically, the very paralysis generated by overload can actually vest effective power in central administration, even while invoking openness.  Political theorists will recognize that move from Madison’s Federalist Papers 10 and 78; when “factions” multiply, they cancel each other out. If everyone gets to submit a wish list, then real power accrues to the few who whittle them down in the face of budget shortfalls.  If the goal were to centralize real power, the phone book model would do the job. In fact, there’s a pretty good argument to the effect that it did.

When resources are tight, the limits of the phone-book model should be obvious. If you have 100 top priorities, you don’t have any priorities at all. An unranked, comprehensive wish list is unhelpful as a guide to action.  If you want to have some agency in determining your fate, you need to be willing to focus on a few key areas. As you make progress on those, you can add a few more.  It’s piecemeal, but it allows for agency, rather than just reaction.

The catch is that circumstances change faster than attitudes do.  We’re in a to-do list world at this point, but many people still expect the phone book.  They get jumpy, or scared, or angry when they don’t see themselves listed. They think it portends something awful, like the old Soviet style of airbrushing people out of photographs.  It doesn’t, but it’s difficult to talk people out of fear.

To-do lists assume a context, and take that context as given.  That’s a feature, not a bug. My to-do list for Saturday included “drop TB off at the airport” and “get dinner.”  It did not include “provide a loving home for the kids,” but that’s not because the loving home was being forgotten. It continued. The to-do list was on top of that, not in place of it.

All of which is fine, but if people are expecting the phone book, and instead get a to-do list, I can anticipate some panic. What is intended as empowerment may look, at first, like abandonment. It isn’t; if anything, it’s the opposite. I just hope the learning curve is short enough that we can make progress while we still have the option.

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