Planning, action, and reflection

When I worked for a provincial government department in the late 70s doing a policy research project, I worked under a deputy minister who was a “Management by Objectives” enthusiast. I learned to do work plans every quarter that specified goals, objectives, and timelines. I found this discipline to be very useful so I continued it throughout my career. I became a die-hard planner.

In the research consulting practice I pursued for ten years prior to doing my PhD, I did a number of program evaluations. I became convinced of the value of continually examining program outcomes in relation to goals and objectives in order to determine whether you are staying on track. I also became convinced of the need to collect data systematically, including eliciting the perspectives of others. This is the only way to get an accurate picture of what is happening. Such  data often reveal things that are unexpected, including alerting you to unforeseen consequences of your work. Perhaps most importantly, I came to understand how thinking like an evaluator can contribute to decision-making about program design, implementation, and adaptation.

However, as noted in the article on moving along the innovation arc, the context in which the Learning Exchange developed required my team and I to improvise. The environment was unknown, even dangerous, so we had to pay at least as much attention to what was happening around us as to what our own agenda might be. In the beginning, our primary goals were to learn as much as we could about the environment, try to figure out how UBC could make a contribution, and avoid disaster. We had to respond quickly to emerging opportunities and threats. So not having a plan made sense.

Gradually our activities and relationships took shape. The team developed a coherent sense of purpose. We started engaging in cycles of planning, action, and reflection more intentionally. We incorporated formal planning and evaluation processes into the programs we  created. These formal processes were complemented by the habits we had developed earlier. Even when we were not engaged in formal evaluation activities we asked ourselves, “What’s going on here? What’s working? What’s not working? What should we do next?”

It might seem that engaging in cycles of planning, action, and reflection is antithetical to the approach of simply responding to emerging opportunities or threats. But I do not think these approaches are contradictory. They are essentially the same practice but in different forms. And in reality, the steps in the cycle are not discrete. They may occur virtually simultaneously. In order to respond effectively to emerging forces, you have to have some idea of where you want to go, you have to take action, and you have to assess the outcomes of your actions. In the throes of chaos or rapid change, you may not be able to design and implement formally structured or scientifically rigorous data collection and analysis processes, but you still need to take information in and figure out what it means. So, even in situations where we could not point to tangible evaluation data we had collected or written plans we were following, I think the essence of this practice was fundamental to the work of the Learning Exchange from the beginning.

Strategic planning for the organization

In addition to our reliance on this planning cycle in the conduct of our specific activities, I made several attempts to plan for the organization as a whole. This was not only a result of my penchant for planning. I believed  that an important aspect of my leadership role was to give staff a clear sense of direction. In order to be able to do this, I had to have a vision of where we were going and how we could get there.

In April 2002 I prepared a draft seven year plan for the Learning Exchange which included quantitative projections of annual participation in all of our programs as well as projections around the number of staff we would need to implement the expanding programs. I also estimated the annual budgets that would be required.

In early 2003 I suggested to UBC’s President, Martha Piper, that the impressive outcomes of Community Service Learning (CSL) could be amplified if we got more students involved. I said, “Imagine if even only 10% of UBC’s students were involved. That would be about 3,000 students, ten times the number now involved. Imagine what they could do!” Martha was very enthusiastic about this idea. She started talking about it in her speeches. Before long, the idea that UBC wanted 10% of its students doing CSL took on a life of its own.

As a result, I reviewed my 2002 plan. At the time I was interpreting the goal as meaning that 10% of students would graduate having taken part in CSL, which would mean that about 875 students every year would do CSL (assuming a future total student population of 35,000). My 2002 projections were substantially below this target. But by 2003 I knew that the actual participation in the Trek Program in 2002-2003 was double what I had projected the previous year. I began to question the value of my projections. The program’s momentum was showing no signs of slowing; quite the reverse. We were not seeing any signs of reaching a saturation point among students. And the President wanted CSL to keep growing.

So I developed a new plan in March 2003. This one was different from the previous year’s plan. It did not put forward quantitative targets. Instead, it focused on articulating a vision for the Learning Exchange, a set of values, an organizational structure, and a list of goals that reflected our attempts to increase the interconnections among our different programs. All of this was evidence of an emerging organizational coherence.

By the fall of 2003, my sense of the Learning Exchange vision was solid enough that I drafted a one page schematic outlining what we did, how we did it (our core practices and values), the outcomes we were aiming for (e.g., cultivating the qualities of global citizenship) and the larger societal impacts we hoped to achieve (e.g., having the values of respect, responsibility, restraint, redistribution, and reverence being normative in society). Although I did not prepare annual projections of growth for each one of our programs, I began talking about achieving the goal of having 10% of the graduating class having done CSL by 2010, the target end point for UBC’s second iteration of its Trek vision.

In early 2004 the team began to realize we could no longer continue pursuing every idea that came along. The array of programs and projects we were pursuing was a collection of ad hoc activities whose alignment with our increasingly coherent sense of purpose was not always clear. The staff team was working extremely hard trying to keep up with the growth in our programs. We could see that we could no longer say “yes” whenever a new idea was suggested. We decided we needed to be more strategic about our decision-making. We could not just do more of everything.

blue flowers croppedI began thinking about how to turn what had become like a profusion of wild flowers in a meadow into a formal garden with an intentional structure, a garden where certain foundational trees and shrubs were complemented by smaller plants to achieve desired effects. The team began thinking about which “plants” were most useful and beautiful and which were not ideally suited to the environment. Fortunately, because we had been careful to reflect on how things were going and to collect formal evaluation data when appropriate and feasible, we had lots of data to facilitate our decision-making.

In March 2004 I drafted yet another strategic plan. This one included a program model that was intended to integrate our efforts by focusing on our work with the Vancouver School Board (VSB). The proposed model envisioned the Learning Exchange and the VSB engaging in a more purposeful set of initiatives to be based in inner city schools. This model attempted to take into account everything we had learned up to that point. For example, it was intended to avoid the high per participant cost of the 101 course model while at the same time promoting the kind of social networks the 101 courses created. The model aimed to support initiatives that would be developed, piloted, evaluated, and then replicated in increasing numbers of schools.

IMG_0568The model’s goal was to move beyond the building of individual human capital (which we had seen occurring in students doing CSL as well as in participants in our storefront programs) in an ambitious drive to build social capital, i.e., to build communities centred on schools. The model also aimed to reinforce a singular sense of purpose for the Learning Exchange, something that seemed to me to be at risk as the CSL and storefront programs each continued to expand and the roles of staff became more specialized.

The value of strategic planning

As discourses about organizations becomes more aligned with concepts and models associated with complex living systems rather than mechanistic, hierarchical paradigms from the industrial era, and as more organizations admit that their strategic plans did not provide useful guides for decision-making, strategic planning has become passé, at least in some quarters. I can certainly attest to the fact that the actual evolution of the Learning Exchange deviated from the various scenarios I projected. I was particularly disappointed that, for a variety of reasons, the model we designed in collaboration with the Vancouver School Board did not come to fruition. But I have not come to the conclusion that strategic planning is a futile exercise.

I should explain that the plans I developed were not like the typical strategic plans that external consultants produce for businesses or other institutions, usually after extensive conversations with key stakeholders. My plans were prepared with some input from my staff, but they were mostly my own attempts to make sense of what we were doing and where I thought we needed to go. I found it extremely valuable to make the effort to articulate goals and targets for growth.

From my point of view, once the Learning Exchange had a defined sense of purpose, its work became much more focused. No longer were we making everything up as we went along. We were still doing new things or deciding to do old things in new ways. The difference was we had some visible, shared reference points that allowed us to know why we should choose some paths and not others. So the articulation of the ways our work aligned with UBC’s vision and the identification of specific goals and intended outcomes did guide our decision-making.

I think the more important outcome of the planning I did was that it gave me confidence. Once I had envisioned how the Learning Exchange could grow in a manageable way, once I could see that our work could, indeed, lead to valuable outcomes for the university and the community, I felt much more grounded. The process of envisioning the future in light of the realities of the past as well as the present convinced me that the Learning Exchange had important work to do, work that it was ideally situated to do. I think my commitment, confidence and certainty had significant outcomes. I definitely became a better leader for the Learning Exchange staff team. I could see where we were going, explain why we were going there and not somewhere else, and I could offer ideas on how to get there. The team, too, became more committed and confident. The culture of the organization became stronger.

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Margo Fryer speaking at UBC event (photo copyright UBC)

The confidence the team and I exuded also influenced others. There were many times when people from UBC commented on my leadership, passion, and vision. I often wondered exactly what they were referring to and what gave so many people the impression I had a vision for the Learning Exchange. Very few people outside the Learning Exchange staff team ever saw any of my plans or the one page schematic that described our vision, values, and practices. These observations about my passion and my visionary leadership were made mostly by people who had just heard me and my team talk about our work. What did they see or hear? I think what people were noticing was the confidence we felt about the purpose and value of our work. I think we gained this confidence through the overall strategic planning we did as well as through the informal day-to-day effort to practice iterative cycles of planning, action, and reflection. For me, the essence of the practice is making the effort to imagine a feasible, worthwhile future, being attentive to how things are unfolding in the present, and honouring the past in order to learn from your experiences. Then these lessons need to inform the next iteration of your imaginings.

Evaluation is crucial

Doing formal evaluations and/or reflecting informally about the results of our efforts were essential parts of this cycle. I have seen many organizations pay lip service to the need to evaluate outcomes and processes when they engage in planning exercises (or submit proposals for funding) but then fail to follow through. This is unfortunate. In my pre-UBC career I saw several instances where the outcomes of particular activities were wholly unexpected and in some cases, harmful. Both leaders and line staff can have blind spots. Passion, commitment, and confidence can make one particularly susceptible to the tendency to ignore unwelcome news. Experience taught me that the discipline of doing evaluation can provide valuable corrective intelligence.

In addition, eliciting feedback from program participants and partners in formal evaluation processes demonstrates that you care about their experiences and perspectives. Acting on their input provides a very powerful signal that you respect and value them. For the Learning Exchange, doing evaluations became an important component of our emphasis on building relationships.

For more on how we used evaluation in our work, see the article on Doing Developmental Evaluation.

For more on social innovation generally, see the other articles in The Learning Exchange as social innovation.