Who does UK National Strategy - Public Administration Committee Contents

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)[2] 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 paralysed—it 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 thinking.

  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 made—or 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 profiles.

  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 today's priorities".

  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 their instincts.

  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 better decisions.

  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.


  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; 2009)

  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 to measurement.


  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, worldviews.

  25.  The learning points for courses the author has run to promote strategic thinking in a government department include:

    — 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 risk management.

    — 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.

September 2010

2   http://www.thersa.org/projects/social-brain/reports/steer-the-report. Back

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