Thoughts on Setting Strategy and Getting It Done
In graduate school, those of us studying organizations were introduced to a simulation game called “Planners and Operators,” and, since that time, I’ve observed several different groups engage in this activity over the years. It’s used with a group of some size (at least a dozen participants), who are divided into two sub-groups: Planners and Operators. Each group is sent to a different room and told that they each have a distinct goal to accomplish. The Planners are given an envelope containing puzzle pieces which can be successfully assembled by the group after a few tries. The puzzle is made of several geometric shapes, which, when correctly assembled, form a square.
Their group’s goal, the Planners are informed, is to write down the instructions for correctly assembling the puzzle as efficiently as possible. After they have finished this task, these written directions will be given to the Operators, who will then assemble the puzzle following the Planners’ written instructions. The Planners will not be allowed to answer any Operators’ questions once the Operators have begun their task. Most groups of Planners eagerly dive into achieving their goal—motivated by the need to be as helpful as possible to the Operators—as they edit and re-edit their written directions to be as clear as possible.
Meanwhile, in the Operators’ room, the instructions are to wait for directions from the Planners. That’s it. The Planners’ task takes a substantial amount of time (usually a minimum of 45 minutes for a particularly gifted group), and the Operators have no interim task or instructions—they just hang out. I’ve observed a range of reactions to this situation by Operator groups: some enjoy the lack of structure and finding plenty of interesting things to talk about; some groups have sent notes via emissary to the Planners asking them just how long they should expect to wait; others have “revolted” en masse and left to get coffee. Many times, when the groups are finally brought back together and the proud Planners hand over their detailed instructions to the Operators, the reaction is annoyance or downright anger—which the Planners have trouble understanding: why would the Operators be so irritated when we Planners have been taking all this time and effort precisely to help them be successful in reaching their goal?
The lesson of this simulation activity lies in the “hanging-outedness” of the Operators. Although the Planners are off in another room busily engaged in doing something benevolent for the Operators, the Operators are unaware of what’s going on with the Planners. All they know is that they’ve been asked to wait for instructions. And different groups of Operators experience the wait differently from each other—some grateful for the unstructured time, others antsy for action, still others militant and angry.
But all Operators have a very different experience than do the Planners.
The purpose of the “Planners and Operators” activity is to teach this difference of meaning to individuals who experience very different realities “back home” in their workplaces. At the executive levels are those whose role is to set strategy for the entire organization, to envision a successful direction and future—they truly are consummate Planners. At other levels are those who must implement whatever direction is set. These true Operators, however, are seldom hanging out and waiting for instructions; rather, they are out there “operating”—doing their best in the jobs they hold, solving daily problems with diverse results from which, hopefully, they learn something.
One thing is certain here as well as in the simulation game: Operators have a very different experience than do Planners. It might not be too much of a stretch to suggest that they experience two very different Organizations, or, at least, two radically different organizational cultures.
Perhaps the lessons of the Planners and Operators activity might be instructively applied to the situation addressed in contemporary human helping organizations. The load on these institutions has never been greater, nor their services needed more. And yet, for many, the disconnect between those whose role is to map future strategy and those who provide direct day-to-day service is widening. Both roles are critical. Both need the other. These challenging times are not well served when Planners and Operators lose sight of each other’s experience as both seek to serve people in need.
This isn’t a hopelessly gridlocked traffic jam of a problem. Understanding the issue and a sincere willingness to strengthen organizational cross-culture communication are the preliminary steps. Many resources for moving ahead exist [including COR]. This phenomenon lies at the intersection of structure and strategy on the one hand, and lived individual experience on the other. Not only is understanding this intersection important for Planners-and-Operators-type issues, but for many other issues as well. Learning to navigate this intersection enables individuals to make sense of their experience and to share it with others; it allows those with different responsibilities and subcultures to inquire about the experiences of others; and it strengthens a sense of belonging and working toward a common vision in the organization.