Strategic Planning and Effects-Based Thinking: Part 1

As the name implies, effects-based thinking (EBT) is an approach to strategic planning and decision making where the effects of specific actions are assessed, not in a narrowly defined and time-limited way, but through a perspective that is sensitive to broad-ranging and lasting impacts.

Effects-based thinking is the opposite of short-sightedness or myopia.

Sadly, we have the ability to think about effects, yet we often don’t. In our fast-paced personal and work lives we tend to think more about today’s issues rather than tomorrow’s. Strategic planning objectives get pushed back further and further to accommodate those immediate concerns.

Modern organizations tend to exacerbate our naturally myopic tendencies by planning in small executive teams and passing down narrowly defined objectives and goals with little connectedness to overall goals.

Ironically, narrow strategic planning sparks our natural capacity for effects-based thinking. In the wake of some failed corporate plan, the water cooler conversations buzz with effects-based criticisms like, “Didn’t they realize that was going to happen? ” or “I saw that coming a mile away. ”

To some extent we are all effects-based thinkers. If you ever said to yourself, “I’m not going to stay up to watch the rest of this game because I won’t get enough sleep and I have a busy day tomorrow.

” Or, if you decided to enroll in graduate school to get an MBA so that you would have better career options, then you are certainly thinking about effects. In this sense, effects-based thinking is a fundamental human trait in our strategic planning processes.

We envision some future or some goal, or we analyze some set of choices or actions and we think forward through a chain of cause and effect to make decisions. Thinking about effects is part of our nature as humans.

However, few individuals or organizations utilize effects-based thinking systemically. Such an organized, process-oriented approach is what we mean by effects-based thinking. We partially define effects-based thinking as strategic planning and decision-making directed to shape an organization’s picture of the future.

This is only a partial definition because we must additionally consider what we know about complex systems – that they are inherently unpredictable and subject to rapid, even destructive change. Furthermore, actions can produce unpredictable effects and unintended consequences within complex systems – even with a comprehensive strategic planning initiative.

In complexity, the cause and effect sequence will always have some degree of ambiguity. Unfortunately, we’re stuck with the fact that no person or group of people has completely reliable predictive abilities about complex systems.

We also know that within complex systems, root causes of effects can be obscure. So, even with the benefit of hindsight, we may not know precisely what forces are at work to yield any given effect. Therefore, we must be ever vigilant about what is happening around us. We must also continually assess cause and effect in our internal and external systems.

Effects-based thinking is about more than just strategic planning by mentally projecting through a series of causes and effects. It is also about assessing the effectiveness and accuracy of our predictive planning. To truly think in an effects-based way requires us to think cyclically rather than linearly.

To be more accurate, effects-based thinking can be defined as a continuum of strategic planning and assessing the effectiveness of actions directed to shape an organization’s overall goals and objectives.

In other words it’s “how do we get what we want and how do we know we’re making the right choices to get it”. And that seems pretty simple and straightforward if it were not for this pesky problem within most organizations known as “execution”.

Organizations create plans that span the course of years. They call these plans “strategies. ” But leaders in organizations struggle to coordinate or orchestrate the execution of these strategies and utilize effects-based thinking.

One of the many reasons for this is that the strategic planning is often not well connected to the operational plans, or what military planners call “tactical plans. ” The strategic plan often spans a period of years while the tactical plans may only span a period of days, weeks or a month.

There is a missing strategic planning tier needed to bridge that gap – one that spans the multiple-month to multiple-year gap. Without effects-based thinking, the plans we carry out on a daily basis are hard to connect to the overall strategy that spans a year or more.

In that case then, how do you measure your progress in support of the strategy? And, even more importantly in this rapidly changing complex world, how do we know our strategy is still a viable one? Complex phenomena obscure our ability to determine whether our chosen course is correct.

So, what do we do? Do we just keep plugging along for months or even years until it becomes painfully obvious that our strategy is ineffective or needs adjustment, and then employ effects-based thinking?