A background in research has led Wayne into an exhaustive study of strategic planning, with some surprising results. The skills learned have been a great asset in his role at Port Macquarie-Hastings Council.What do you do at Port Macquarie-Hastings Council?
I’m employed by Council to do all that I can to present a strong business case to the Federal Government and to entice universities to make a bid for infrastructure, so that we have a wider range of university courses in the region.
Why does Council believe that this is a worthwhile venture?
Increasing the number of university courses locally is very important. This region needs a labour force that can meet the professional skill shortages that currently exist. Increasing the number of bachelor qualified residents will not only improve our labour force, it will increase the potential of households to earn greater levels of income, it will increase the intellectual and human capital in the region, it will increase the likelihood of businesses to grow and will achieve many economic and social outcomes. This has been proven many times over.
Talking about qualifications, what are yours, and what was involved?
It’s a PhD in Strategic Management. To do this I had to firstly present a proposal to the University Research Committee to demonstrate that I had a set of researchable questions and that these would provide new knowledge in strategic management. This was the first main hurdle and once this was achieved, the second task was to collect data, analyse the data and write a thesis reporting the results of the research.
You have just made it sound very easy. How did you go about identifying and isolating your specific topic?
No, it wasn’t as simple as it sounds. However, I believe you can only take something like this on if you’re researching something that you have an immense interest in. I was interested in strategic planning and managerial actions. This topic was chosen purely as a result of my interest.
What were the prerequisites?
To enrol in a PhD, you need to have a Masters degree in research or an Honours degree in research, which I completed in 2003.
You clearly had an interest in business planning and outcomes too, so what came first?
It was probably a combination of both. Having spent time in the automotive industry as well as the vocational and higher education sectors before I joined Council, I was intrigued by watching managers writing strategic plans and then grappling to write annual reports summarising their actions. The value of planning has been widely questioned in some of the great books on the topic, such as Henry Mintzberg’s The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, so I was looking for the connection between planning and actions.
What was the topic of your thesis?
I analysed the relationship between what managers do and what they plan to do. I had to develop a diagnostic tool that uncovered new information by asking questions that had not been asked before.
How widely did you plan to cover these topics in your PhD?
Because the PhD is so exhaustive and you can’t leave any stone unturned, I had to make a decision whether to concentrate on one industry sector or to concentrate on a range of industries, but make sure that the content was narrow and deep. It was the second option that I chose. I collected data from every industry sector in organisations all over Australia ranging in size from 5 employees to 20,000 employees.
Now this is getting interesting. What did you find, and what did the study bring to the table?
I began by asking managers: “What were the significant actions that occurred in your organisations in the last 12 months?” which is the reverse of the normal routine of: “What did you plan for and what did you actually do”? I found that many actions that had a positive impact on performance were either not planned or were very different from what was planned.
Very clever. Why did you approach it like this?
Purely because everyone has a mindset of reporting against the plan, and I wanted to get away from that and the best way to assess the relationship was to ask what they did first. I found that over 30% of these major actions were unplanned.
So how can an organisation take planning seriously? And to what extent can you plan to be flexible? How can you plan for events that you can’t anticipate?
Exactly, how can you plan for events you can’t predict? Should organisations leave space then?
That’s precisely what I’m saying – don’t overdue your plans, don’t overcook it. Organisations more than ever need to build in the ability to adapt and change where necessary.
What else did you find?
I found that the top performing organisations were those with good planning systems but were flexible enough to change when needed. (These tended to be larger organisations, which was surprising).
Organisations that had specific strategic plans with little or no flexibility did not perform as well. The poorest performers were those with no plans at all; they were purely reactive and tended to be smaller companies. Therefore, I’m not saying throw out the plan – rather, ensure your planning makes accommodations for change.
Does this support the raison d’être of strategic planning?
Yes and no. It supports the need for good planning, but it’s important that the plans have adequate scope for opportunities to be seized. Planning needs to be iterative; it’s an ongoing process, and they need to be designed so that they can be changed accordingly.
What would you say to businesses around here about the value of strategic planning?
With so many small businesses in this region, my message is don’t neglect the value of planning. Although small business owners wear many hats, they need to take time out to work on their plans to understand changes in their own environment and to work out how they should react. Owners and managers tend to work on what’s urgent, rather than what is important, and planning is one of the most important activities they can do.
It’s been a 7-year journey for you. How did you do it?
It took me 7 years because I worked full-time the whole way through. I wrote my thesis (90,000 words) on week nights and Saturdays. I am very fortunate to have an incredibly supportive wife and kids, otherwise I couldn’t have done the 15 – 20 hours of study each week. I also had a fascination for the topic, so that certainly made it easier.
Thanks Wayne, for sharing your insights with us.