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Strategic & Operating Reviews: We Can't Agree to Disagree

Alcide DeGagné

Once again, the Canadian Federal Public Service is undergoing strategic and operational reviews (SOR) — and implementing the changes that flow from SOR will represent a tremendous challenge.

They’re Crazy

From my personal experience, a range of mixed emotions will follow:

If she/he thinks I’ve bought in to this plan, they’re crazy.

Even if {fill in the group} doesn’t believe in our current vision, they’ll believe it when they see it.

I don’t think {fill in the project} even matters to our public.


In the current environment of SOR and budget reductions, no doubt many public service managers are muttering similar statements to themselves.  The water cooler talk is totally focused on the subject:

I am so glad I am permanent.

Poor Sue, she’s a temp and will no doubt be gone.

Given the AG’s recent report, {fill in the program} will be killed.

Deal with It

We mutter these statements under our breath or only to our closest colleagues.  Why? Because we’ve been conditioned to avoid conflict, and schooled on what it takes to be a good corporate citizen.  Because that’s primarily how we get ahead in the system!

But we’ve all learned in real life that wishing these tough issues away is not a solution.

Because most of us are bad at dealing with conflict, we’re also bad at developing what must come through conflict — the extraordinarily hard decisions of alignment.

Pushing Strategy Down

Fostering alignment is the toughest part of implementing the decisions that spin out of SOR.

For too long, alignment has been thought of as “pushing the strategy down” or “across-the-board reductions” to meet the budget target. Gone is any notion that if a strategy is to be effective, the operational plan and budget decisions must remain connected to the innovative work that went into the original strategic planning process. In fact, strategy developed without careful assessment of its operational and financial consequences will only lead to the demoralization of those who must implement it.

Why is alignment so important anyway?Flying geese-260x390

In the age of Gov 2.0, the public served by a government program expects to see “alignment” between the policy presented by their elected leaders, the architecture of the program, and, most importantly, the user experience.

The citizens of 2011 Canada who access a government program have the same expectations for quality service as they have come to expect from their favourite shopping outlet, bank, or service provider.  Today’s “consumers” don’t think consciously about these expectations — it’s what they have been trained to expect.

It should be obvious to the political and public service leaders that this is the case.  But scanning the newspaper, one can quickly identify any number of current events that highlight a “misalignment” within some government service.

Execution is not Alignment

These parallels between business and government are likely obvious to you, but let’s complete the picture:

Between the creation of a new idea and that idea becoming a reality, many different decisions and actions need to happen.  The degree to which those designs, choices, trade-offs, etc. are in sync, the faster and easier it is to bring the idea into existence.

The more people disagree or are confused, the less “aligned” the mechanisms become — and the desired outcome will not likely result.

Disagreement needs to happen and be dealt with during strategic development, not during execution.  These disagreements — or misalignments — that emerge during execution just wear down your already fatigued people, and result in unnecessary time and resource overruns that can easily consume the savings that you are trying to gain.

The more we move forward without real agreement, the more we veer all over the road as we implement.

And there it is in a nutshell — in so many cases we have meetings and planning sessions where the outcome is that we simply agree to disagree and let the plans die on the table.  But in these situations where big change must be developed and implemented, where implementation will move forward regardless, we cannot agree to disagree.

The leaders and influencers must deal with the conflict or risk the viability of their plans, their goals, their resources, and their people.


If you found this interesting, be sure to read the next part in this series — Strategic & Operational Reviews Part 2: Alignment and Failure.


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Although the current dual reviews are sufficiently serious (especially as one peers into the economic abyss south of the border and the implications for Canada’s economy and labor market), they pale in comparison to the IMF-induced Program Review of 1994-96.

What is particularly noteworthy of the current situation is the very different demographic structure of the federal government. During the Program Review some 15 years ago (which incidently was the last major government reorganization) my peers were around my age (40 at the time), with another block just over 50 who blew out the doors due to gold-plated severance packages. This time around, you have a Baby Boomer contingent that is already retiring, with younger Boomers chafing to get out the door. However, of most concern (at least to me) is a recently hired cadre of Gen Yers, who have never faced corporate downsizing and restructuring. On top of that you have Gen Xers who are rapidly moving through middle management to senior positions.

That some of these young people may face surplus status would be a waste of upcoming talent. This was generally not the case in the 1994-96 downsizing of 55,000 positions.

We hear about attrition being the primary vehicle with which to downsize the federal government. I’m not convinced that the necessary numbers of potential retirees will deliver the needed results.

At any rate, it’s a difficult situation. Canada has been fortunate to date when it comes to the past three years. However, the just-released Conference Board of Canada report is very worrysome: that Canada’s global competitive ranking has once again slipped. We’re now at #12.

Restructuring government to increase efficiency and service to Canadians are lauidable goals. But so, too, is keeping the eye on the competitiveness ball.

By Jim Taggart on 2011/09/07

Thanks for your thoughtful comments on the generational differences with the current budget cut environment compared to the situation in the mid-90’s. I totally subscribe to your view that while the cuts are not near as massive this time around, they come at a time when the HR contingent is probably more fragile.

This fragility stems from the aging management cadre, but also from the poor employee engagement climate of recent years. These two together call for great caution and sensitivity in the implementation of S & O Reviews.

By Alcide on 2011/09/08

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Posted by Alcide DeGagné
Posted on September 2, 2011

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Categories: current events, management, planning & policy, public service renewal