I once conducted a post-mortem review of  a “strategic planning” survey at a large government agency.  An internal committee spent months preparing it.  Popular organizational development tools like SWOT analysis were incorporated.  It was administered to well over 1000 sector employees.  There were  websites and webinars explaining the overall aims, the types of responses that were being sought for each question, and the fact that this was “not an employee satisfaction survey.”

Blind spots

In spite of all this preparation, the endeavor failed to shed much light on the agency’s current state, never mind the direction in which it should be heading.  For while it had asked each employee to list out and evaluate the tasks they currently “spend time” on, it asked nothing about:

  1. assigned tasks that employees had no time for,
  2. activities crucial to assigned tasks that typically went unrecognized*, or
  3. suggestions for tasks and projects that employees felt would streamline their jobs and benefit the agency.

For all the time and money that the agency invested in the exercise, the outcome was little more than a snapshot of its current understanding of its current state. The leadership learned next to nothing about current needs–most notably work that wasn’t getting done (but needed to) to accomplish its existing goals–and it certainly didn’t gain any insights into the work it could have been doing, either to facilitate  current tasks, or to move forward strategically.


The adoption of business processes by non-business institutions can lead to less than optimal results since the methods and reasoning behind them are often poorly understood.  A handful of interviews and a round of pilot testing by an outside expert would have provided this agency with a powerful data source for informing its next phase of strategic planning.  Instead, it had set itself up to replicate its current status.

For questions about your own strategic planning data collection project, feel free to contact me, preferably before you send out your survey!



* For a full exploration of this topic see Julian Orr’s classic ethnography on the nature of work, Talking about Machines.