The Regulatory Policy Institute Research Group

Plans versus Strategies: what can we learn from the Robin Redbreast?

‘No battle plan survives contact with the enemy’ was a sentiment expressed by Field Marshall von Moltke (the Elder), who knew a thing or two about military strategy. A transposition into the public policy arena might be ‘no plan survives contact with economic realities’.

Notwithstanding the wisdom in the general sentiment, modern governments spend an inordinate amount of their collective time attending to plans/planning. Desired outcomes are identified – or targets are set – and the focus of attention becomes heavily concentrated on ‘delivering’ the relevant, specific outcomes/targets, usually by means of some or other set of actions that are perceived to be directly linked to the targets.

Outcomes, however, are determined by a whole mix of factors, not just those under the control of government. A plan of action may be decided, but ‘events’ intrude and disrupt the plan. The pattern here is a familiar one.

Strategies are different (though beware the expression ‘strategic plan’ – the word ‘strategic’ is usually rhetorical fluff). They don’t focus on specific outcomes or targets, but rather attend to discovering a set of challenges (crystalised into a set of strategic objectives) which, if met, will together advance the likelihood of general success.

Public policy strategies call for attention to be paid to indirect and interactive effects across the economic system as a whole. The aim is to change, to advantage, the ‘state of the game’ in later periods, not to achieve a specific outcome or target. In a policy context and because of high interconnectedness among its constituent parts, that means attention must be directed toward understanding the functioning of the whole economy, and, in particular, how it evolves over time.

Compared with planning processes, strategy development is very low in its resource requirements. It can be done quickly by small numbers of people, serving to coordinate/align individual policy actions so their incremental effects are mutually supportive, not mutually inhibitive. Yet today’s governments appear to avoid it like the plague. Why is this?

In attempts to answer this question, the first sessions of the RPI’s 2022 and 2023 annual conferences have featured a slide showing a picture of a Robin Redbreast, an animal (like other animals) with a lateralised/divided brain. It has a right hemisphere and a left hemisphere, each specialised to carry out differing functions (a division of labour).

The left hemisphere attends to learnt categories of ‘knowledge’ and it controls behaviour in routine situations, relying chiefly on information from the right eye. The right hemisphere attends to novel stimuli, such as signals of the proximity of an enemy (a predator, a territorially invasive rival) or friend (a potential mate), relying chiefly on information from the left eye. There’s no rigid hierarchy between the two and, critically, both hemispheres are always operational, running in parallel. The Robin sees or attends to the world in two different ways, simultaneously (not sequentially). It’s not ‘now this, then that’, but rather ‘both this and that, now and always’.

This simple, neural structure embodies a strategy picked out by natural selection in service of the objectives ‘survive, prosper and procreate’. It is characterised by two ‘fields of attention’: one focused on narrow or routinised tasks, e.g. seeking food, F1; the other, F2, attending to the whole environment in which the bird finds itself at any moment, e.g. to detect predators or territorial rivals, or to find a friend or another, promising feeding ground .

What’s striking about the organisation of modern government is that there’s no similar division of labour built into its structure, into what can be called its network topology, notwithstanding that F2 functionality is indispensable for strategy development — which requires wide scanning of the whole economic environment to detect and evaluate (diagnose) threats and opportunities.

Use of the bandwidth of politicians, civil servants and advising experts is almost totally devoted to F1 functionality. Being so allocated, it may be difficult for those who govern even to see the cognitive, F2 deficit – an obviously major barrier to taking steps to remedy the condition. For this reason we have deemed governmental structures to be ‘half-brained’.

Working with the animal analogy, the half-brained government thesis (H-BGT), suggests that existing governance systems may work well enough in static environmental contexts: they can at least survive/endure via the development of habits, rules of thumb and other routines. They can, however, be expected to perform poorly in changing environments/contexts that are regularly giving rise to new opportunities and threats, and let’s just say that there has been quite some evidence of this in recent years.

Unblinkered inspection and evaluation of such given, specific evidence might, because it is a F1 functionality, be the best hope that the structural, cognitive deficit will come to be recognised and addressed.

Long reads: Richard Rumelt, “Good Strategy / Bad Strategy: The difference and why it matters’, and To ‘see’, or not to ‘see’: that is the question. Moving on from a half-brained system of economic governance (rpiresearchgroup.org)

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