Last week I launched an analysis of private-public tensions in homeland security. I argued — very broadly (perhaps too broadly to be meaningful) — that the private and public sectors experience two very different contexts.
The private sector context is perceived as having significant opportunities for growth, where failure — especially when recognized and jettisoned — can be a key contributor to ultimate success. The public sector context is perceived as (and often is) resource static or declining and failure is seen as wasteful and/or a source of personal humiliation.
With the exception of an exception by Bill Cumming, this analysis did not prompt comment. In some cultures silence is a signal of disagreement. In the United States silence is more often a matter of tacit agreement or apathetic disengagement. In this instance, I assume the latter but would value your input to challenge or refine these reflections.
Different Contexts produce Different Concepts of Operation
If reality is static then planning (derived from the Latin for flat or plain or easy to be seen) is not only logical but is reasonably likely to work well.
Moreover if reality is static and failure is “not an option” then planning needs to be — and can be — very detailed. It becomes the operational analogy of a symphony score.
In the military, emergency management and related public sector domains the score (plan) will often seem similar to an early 20th Century orchestral composition by Schoenberg or Berg or Eisler where excruciating detail unfolds from many pages of careful notation. It is almost impossible to perform, but with enough practice serious professionals can pull it off. Audience reaction varies from wild applause to rioting in the aisle.
Planners are certainly aware they are planning for a non-static situation. But their current reality — in terms of budget, assignment, measures, and more — is mostly static. Their own success or failure is much more likely to emerge from the ongoing stasis than the anticipated non-stasis for which they are planning.
(Which reminds me of a Niels Bohr aphorism: “You’re not thinking, you’re just being logical.”)
Meanwhile the private sector — because it perceives expansive opportunity — is inclined to much looser plans, much more jazz than symphony. This does not mean it is undisciplined, but it is a very different kind of discipline. “To the uninitiated, jazz seems like chaos, whereas the reality is that it’s very ordered,” according to Deniz Ucbasaran. “Underpinning the structure is a long tradition of education and practice.”
In the public sector a great deal of perceived value is embedded in the plan itself. Developing explicit guidance for future execution is the goal. The private sector tends to focus more on the planning process. Private value is generated by bringing together individuals and teams from across the enterprise with customers and suppliers and other stakeholders for problem-seeking discussions that emphasize choosing strategic predispositions. Developing implicit understanding is a frequent goal.
Because private sector context is perceived to be ever-changing it is assumed most tactical decisions cannot be made until real-time is unfolding. But strategic advantages can be recognized and claimed to better support tactical choices.
Both private and public planning is focused on an anticipated future. Both private and public recognize the future is not precisely predictable. But there is a tendency for the public sector to perceive that unpredictability is best engaged through systematically conceived pre-decisions, while the private sector is more inclined to identify present action and shared strategic objectives.
(In a future post I will try to describe what is actually done by the two sectors when the anticipated future unfolds. It often seems to me counter-intuitive given these predispositions.)
Recently I was involved in a mostly public sector planning process for an unlikely but very consequential event. There was a private sector guy having his baptismal experience in public-private joint planning. It was a much better-than-average public sector planning activity. There was a substantive discussion of risks. It focused helpfully on meaningful objectives and how the plan should be amended before the next meeting of the inter-jurisdictional, inter-agency, (sort of ) private-public group.
But after the session the newbie private sector participant shared his frustration with the lack of immediate operational/functional action. He was not referencing planning actions. He wanted to know when actual changes in personnel, financial or operational commitments would be made to reflect the substantive discussion. Of course such actions are almost never within the purview of public sector planners.
In a static — or receding — universe, planning relates to what should be done in the future. In an expanding universe planning is mostly about what will be done now to shape the future.
Another Niels Bohr quote (can you guess who I am reading?): “Every sentence I utter must be understood not as an affirmation, but as a question.” While the rhetoric above may sound confident, I am not. This is written out as a kind of discovery learning. I hope you have some corrections or, at least, alternatives.