Written evidence submitted by Nick Birks
1. This submission responds to Question
7 How are strategic thinking skills best developed and sustained
within the Civil Service?
Strategic thinking is a way of thinking.
Advances in behavioural and brain science in the last twenty years
or so offer new insights into the way humans think. But less attention
is paid to the psychology of strategic thinking than to the structural
impediments to strategic thinking in government (job design which
favours problem solving above goal-seeking and risk-averse adherence
to process, the silo focus on delivery accountabilities that see
peripheral vision as a distraction).
Civil servants in decision-making roles
may "not know they don't know" what strategic thinking
is, and favour mainstream risk management rather than more appropriate,
but less well known, uncertainty management techniques.
Strategic thinking can flourish for those
with a psychological predisposition to strategic thinking if structural
barriers are eased, but everyone can benefit from tools and techniques
to underpin strategic thinking with a methodological approach.
The Civil Service may in future need
to recruit for personality types more predisposed to strategic
thinking than to a delivery focus.
It may be that government will have to
mandate that departments (or their future equivalent) have a challenge
function that is immune to changes of leadership and the patronage
strategic thinking relies on.
Different types of strategic thinking
include strategic analysis in support of a particular administration's
key priorities, and strategic thinking aimed at the identification
of longer term issues (which may be what is meant by "Grand
Strategy"). The Cabinet Office Strategy Unit has been very
good at the former. Foresight and WHISPER are the nearest to the
latter but otherwise it is the province of external think tanks,
which are sometimes solution-led.
2. This submission is made in a personal
capacity. It is based on experience from the exercise of the author's
accountability for "raising the capability for strategic
thinking" across a government department.
3. Strategic thinking is a core competence
for the Senior Civil Service. If the role of the Civil Service
is to change to one of a smaller, more strategic, centre assessed
on its capability for creative thinking and innovation it will
need people who think differently.
4. Strategic thinking requires an understanding
of what is meant by strategy. There are various definitions of
strategy but the National School of Government's is specific to
government "Strategic organisations develop an understanding
of their likely future operating environments. It is not a sufficient
ambition for government simply to understand how to survive in
a particular future. The job of government is to change the future,
that is, to set out a vision of a desired future and through policies
and achievement of those policies, to bring that future about".
Question 7: How are strategic thinking skills best
developed and sustained within the Civil Service?
5. As the qualification "strategic"
indicates "strategic thinking" is a different way of
thinking. If you think differently you will behave differently.
Matthew Taylor's 21st Century Enlightenment Project at the RSA
is based on the fact that the 18th Century Enlightenment changed
the way people thought, and thus what they did.
6. Advances in behavioural and brain science
in the last thirty years offer new insights into human cognition
and the way people think. The RSA's social brain project has produced
a report called "Steer" (2010)
which recommends teaching schoolchildren how their brains work
and how they think following pilots that showed that better decisions
are made with this awareness. It may be that default thinking
envisages the future will be more of the present, which is inimical
to strategic thinking.
7. Iain McGilchrist (The Master and His
Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World;
Yale University Press; 2009) draws on the work of V I Ramachandran
to show how the (currently dominant) left hemisphere of the brain
seeks closure and constructs mechanistic models of the world such
that the model persists even when evidence shows it has been overtaken.
(For example patients confabulate narratives to explain why their
paralysed left arm following a right hemisphere trauma is not
paralysedit is someone else's arm: the left hemisphere
model of the world, one in which the left arm was not paralysed).
It may be the case that "left-brained" organisations,
and the public sector, self-select for rational people which makes
their environment less comfortable for creative and strategic
8. Strategy is about the future: "The
future [is] a psychological space, into which we project our hopes
and fears, our dreams and expectations." (Hardin Tibbs: Making
the Future Visible: Psychology, Scenarios and Strategy; 1999).
Everyone has their own view of the future and often these different
assumptions are not recognised, and default thinking assumes that
the world in which decisions will have to endure will be the same
as the world in which the decision is madeor extrapolations
will be made from today, when the "cocktail effect"
of the intersection of different trends will produce discontinuities
which assumptions do not take account of.
9. Particular personality types prefer closure,
others openness (respectively the Judging and Perceiving dimensions
of the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator). Strategic thinking
may suit those with a predisposition to openness, who are comfortable
with ambiguity and uncertainty.
10. Some organisations (Shell and BP) have
said they select for particular personality types for strategy
work. Recruits to the Civil Service may self-select for a culture
that values particular ways of thinking. That culture may make
it difficult for people to exercise strategic thinking. A focus
on actionable thinking and delivery reinforces such cultures.
11. Ashridge Consulting uses a model attributed
to Ralph Stacey showing that different kinds of strategic thinking
are appropriate to different circumstances and strategic dexterity
is needed in switching modes of thinking. Where there is a high
degree of agreement and a high degree of certainty, strategy is
a journey. If agreement and certainty are low, strategy is exploration.
Comfort levels with each mode of thinking vary according to personality
12. Policy making by the Civil Service aligns
itself to the key priorities of the administration of the day.
That requires strategic analysis of a particular kind. But even
a ten year time frame could conceivably see three or four political
administrations, and strategic thinking needs to identify long
term issues that face society. The Cabinet Office's Strategy Unit
has the research and analysis function that provides the former
but the author is unaware of any function equivalent to a "skunk
works" within government. The nearest equivalents are Foresight
in the Government Office of Science and the WHISPER cross-government
network out of the Royal College of Defence Studies. Other than
this the function tends to be performed by external think tanks,
some of which may have particular agendas.
13. The Civil Service response to greater
complexity has been to "silo" skills and policy areas
which is inimical to cross-disciplinarity and favours "point
solutions" which afford control and accountability but do
not take account of the whole system and simply move a cost from
one balance sheet to another.
14. It's difficult for hard pressed civil
servants to find time to be interested in something that will
not solve today's problems. That's not what they are measured
and assessed on. Civil servants are often consumed with today's
problems. The response, when trying to engage people on thinking
long term, is often "we can worry about the future after
15. Those who "don't know that they
don't know" what strategic thinking is may be too focused
with jobs too demanding to allow them to indulge their intellectual
curiosity. This may mean that strategic thinking courses self
select for those who least need it. It also favours "shoot
from the hip" wishful-thinking strategy. The push for evidence-based
decisions (or evidence-informed decisions, recognising recent
research showing that evidence is a social construct) may mitigate
that except where solutions seem so obvious there seems no reason
to explore whether there is any evidence. Some evidence is counter
intuitive and people would not think to look to it to support
16. Both "strategy" and "futures"
can be power words that seek to exclude. Rather than using "terms
of art" such as these it may be preferable to talk about
ways of thinking that help people do their jobs today by making
17. Even those with a low natural tolerance
for ambiguity can benefit from the tools to help them identify,
embrace and cope with uncertainty and develop strategies that
are resilient to a number of possible future outturns, not just
the one assumed as most likely.
TOOLS & TECHNIQUES
18. Because strategy involves taking decisions
today that will shape, or be affected by, the future, there is
a temptation to fall into a trap of attempting to predict the
future, or to make "toxic assumptions" that reduce uncertainty
to risk, because there are tried and tested tools and techniques
for managing risk. These risk management processes naturally frame
thinking in terms of risk rather than opportunity: problem solving
rather than goal-seeking, which inhibits strategic thinking.
19. Civil servants are incentivised for
adherence to process and avoidance of risk, not pursuit of outcomes.
Geoff Mulgan says "In business strategic thinking often begins
with organizational capabilities and then looks for how they can
be used in different ways to create as much value as possible.
Public strategy has traditionally begun the other way around,
with goals: it then designs organizations and programmes to meet
them and treats any additional capacity as a threat to focus.
It's often seen as illegitimate for bureaucrats to seek new roles.
But both politicians and officials often acts as entrepreneurs,
looking for new demands in a dialogue with the public in which
goals are not fixed." (The Art of Public Strategy; Oxford;
20. People with successful careers in the
Civil Service are often focused on delivery and can sometimes
see the peripheral vision necessary for strategic thinking to
be a distraction. They find it difficult to step outside of a
role in which they have been successful and may have a sub conscious
interest in preserving the status quo, in which they know how
to perform well, even when the environment has changed. The culture
favours fire-fighting, where people can be seen to be successful,
rather than outcome-focused long term prevention, whose invisibility
may not enhance careers.
21. Strategy involves outcomes or impacts.
Outcomes are cognate with prevention and it is easier to measure
intervention than prevention (measuring how many teeth a dentist
drills is easier than measuring how much decay has been prevented).
What gets measured gets done, what gets done is what is capable
of being measured, but the important things are often not susceptible
22. An appetite for strategic thinking requires
a demand or "pull". This often depends on visible patronage
from the top of the organisation otherwise it is marginalised
in favour of more visible and relevant activity. Another reason
it needs top level patronage is that it is otherwise seen as a
niche or peripheral activity and is also threatening because it
has the potential to challenge established ways of thinking which
have served careers well.
23. High level sponsorship can often disappear
with changes of leaders. For example a new leader may demand more
focus. This dependency on patronage makes it difficult to sustain
strategic thinking, and the inherent nature of strategic thinking
(which encourages challenge of successful, established approaches)
can have alienated influential people in the organisation.
24. Strategic thinking can also be seen
to be non-corporate, questioning existing strategy. It needs a
`safe harbour' within departments which are not at the mercy of
the patronage of particular leaders of the time. If strategic
thinking is to be successful, departments will have to tolerate
diversity of thinking and accommodate the `personality types'
and questioning and challenging of established, and hitherto successful,
25. The learning points for courses the
author has run to promote strategic thinking in a government department
We all come to the future with different
assumptions, it is psychological territory.
The future is not more of the present.
The world is constantly changing.
The only reason to consider the future
is to make better decisions today.
Uncertainty management is different from
We cannot reduce uncertainty, there are
tools we can use to identify, embrace and work with uncertainty,
and test the resilience of policies and strategies we are making
today, over the longer term.
2 http://www.thersa.org/projects/social-brain/reports/steer-the-report. Back