Home > Planning, politics, research > More reflections on Mintzberg on planning

More reflections on Mintzberg on planning

In 1978, Professor Henry Mintzberg writes:

“Most of our studies show evidence of two main patterns, one superimposed on the other. The first is the life cycle of an overall strategy its conception, elaboration, decay, and death. The second is the presence of periodic waves of change and continuity within the life cycle. (Longer cycles of this kind could be identified as well, from one life cycle to the next.) What this second pattern suggests is that strategies do not commonly change in continuous incremental fashion; rather, change even incremental change takes place in spurts, each followed by a period of continuity.”


A reflection on Mintzberg:

The Dept of Defense’s capstone Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution System (PPBES) is the supreme techno-rational control process left in the world after the demise of the Soviet Union and its central planning. It values precision, detail and control and is based in a belief that certainty can be achieved even in complex situations. It responds to uncertainty with more planning and a quest for more certainty.

PPBE is failing at a rapid rate as more competitors learn to offset the American economic and conventional military advantages with asymetric threats. Recent battlefield and political successes can be attributed to setting aside the formality and lockstep bureaucracy with adaptive improvisation and design thinking. The best measure of this phenomenon is in the rise of Operational Needs Statements which are how local commanders submit requests for people and equipment not contained in their centrally planned an designed organizations. Once a rare exception, they have now become the primary way by which unit redesign and organizational change are conducted.

This is considered by many to be an indictment of the PPBE system, which still endures due to institutional inertia and the fact that it is easily gamed by defense contractors

Extreme environmental pressure created the need to bypass the formality of PPBE, in spite of every effort made by insiders to maintain business as usual. This inertia cost the nation many 10s of billions of dollars in wasted procurement programs that were not needed by field forces.

The micro changes of field units working around the system in an ad-hoc manner which ultimately became the Operational Need Statement was a bottom up transformation (still in progress) which is revolutionary in nature.

Micro-improvements to the process brought discipline and normality to the ad hoc process and it may succeed in significantly amending the PPBE process. Without the constant tinkering and experimenting of a strategy in process, the PPBE would have collapsed under its own weight and risked failure in Iraq.

A detailed plan with rigid adherence was a recipe for disaster in Iraq and so I will disagree with those who want to preserve strategy for the sake of consistency and certainty. Under some circumstances that can be the worst strategy of all.

The Pentagon Wars” book and movie outline the absurdity of the over-formalized PPBE process, while “Boyd” by Robert Coram is an excellent treatment of the military reform movement of the 1980s which was the last serious attempt to reform an outdated strategic control system.

The story of the modern reform movement is still being debated and discussed in the halls of CGSC, including my dissertation topic which examines the education of the next generation of leaders and their understanding of change management


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: