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Book Reviews

Preparing for the Future: Strategic Planning in the U.S. Air Force

by Michael Barzelay and Colin Campbell
Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press 274 pages,
$US22.95 (paperback).
Reviewed by Dr. Thierry Gongora

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Long-range planning and the development of corporate visions are part of best practices in private corporations. In recent years, they have been adopted by many governmental agencies and departments, as well as military organizations, as a way of providing strategic direction and focus to these large bureaucratic organizations. The art of strategic (i.e., long-range) planning is difficult, in particular in large public or military organizations where leadership and staff typically undergo a high rate of turnover, undermining corporate memory and learning processes. A recent book by Michael Barzelay (London School of Economics and Political Science) and Colin Campbell (Chair in US Government and Politics, University of British Columbia) illustrates successful strategic planning and visioning with a case study on the United States Air Force (USAF) in the 1990s. Although this book review is aimed at defence planners, Barzelay and Campbell expressly write for a broader audience of managers in the public sector who would also benefit from reading this book.

Barzelay and Campbell’s approach to the subject is based on an extensive series of interviews with key participants in the successive rounds of strategic planning. The interpretation of this ‘oral history’ is complemented by numerous references to the literature on public management and organization theory. Readers who appreciate history and the contingent character of human endeavours will find this book rewarding; those who are looking for simple management principles and solutions that systematically work will probably find the work frustrating. If a key lesson emerges from this publication, it is that strategic planning requires more of a soft planning approach — what the authors call guided incrementalism and mixed scanning — than a highly systematic process that is expected to provide detailed strategic guidance for years.

The book is organized into nine chapters. The first defines strategic planning and visioning, and sets the USAF case study in the broader context of US public administration. The next three chapters narrate the story of USAF strategic planning during the 1990s. These chapters are followed by four that take a more analytical focus. The authors explain the reasons for success, assess the extent to which a culture of strategic planning took hold within the USAF and affected decisions with regard to specific programmes, and evaluate how successful the USAF was at assessing and revising its vision and strategic guidance. The last chapter builds upon the USAF case study to expand on the notion of public entrepreneurship, that is, a more active role in governance for public servants and career officials.

One strength of this book is the fact that it covers more than a single round of strategic planning in the USAF. The various episodes can therefore be compared, giving more robustness to the conclusions drawn. The account starts with a brief treatment of the first USAF vision document called Global Reach — Global Power, released in 1990 just before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. This document was unique at the time because the US armed forces did not have a tradition of producing vision documents. Global Reach — Global Power was a precursor of subsequent vision documents in its attempt to explain the roles and functions of a military service in the post-Cold War era, and to point out the distinctive capabilities that a specific service can provide to the defence of the nation.

A significant limitation to this document, however, was that it had been developed by a small team of experts, and as a result had never been the object of an institutional ‘buy-in’ within, or outside of, the USAF. The next significant episode of strategic planning and visioning took place under the leadership of General Ronald Fogleman. This led to the production of the vision document entitled Global Engagement in 1996, as well as a detailed long-range plan. This was the pivotal period when strategic planning really took hold within the USAF as a result of successful leadership and the establishment of key processes and resources dedicated to long-range planning.

Fogleman’s heritage also illustrates the limits of strategic planning and visioning, most notably the difficulty of translating a broad strategic intent into detailed guidance. With hindsight, it seems realistic to expect that strategic planning can serve two major functions. The first is to provide criteria to inform decisions at critical points. The second is to furnish a discourse to promote the interests of an institution within the broader policy making environment, rather than to think that it will yield a detailed and workable action plan for an institution over a period of 10 to 15 years.

The subsequent round of strategic planning and visioning occurred under the leadership of Chief of Staff of the US Air Force General Michael E. Ryan and Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters. This led to the publication of Global Vigilance, Reach, and Power in 2000. This episode is interesting because it shows how strategic planning evolved and survived under quite different circumstances than those that had led to the creation of the process under Fogleman. Essentially, strategic planning became institutionalized and less dependent on the performance of any specific leader or small group of planners.

Barzelay and Campbell’s book contains a host of lessons for strategic planners and decision makers who are attempting to develop a vision and long-range plans for their institution. I have drawn the following from their study:

The role of senior leaders. Strategic visioning and long-range planning cannot be successful in the absence of the engagement of senior leaders in the process. In the case of the USAF, the involvement of General Fogleman in the process of strategic visioning was crucial. He did not do it all, but his actions and decisions at specific points ensured that the whole Air Force leadership took strategic visioning seriously. His interventions in the process did not involve any micro-management; he just insisted on a few simple principles and intervened at selected points in the process to ensure they were appropriately resourced and supported. Other senior leaders also played key roles in promoting specific issues. All this was possible because the Chief of Staff had clearly communicated his commitment to see the process carried out.

Institutionalization of visioning and long-range planning. Part of the failure of the initial USAF vision, Global Reach — Global Power, was the fact that it had been developed by a very small group of experts, with no significant interaction with the whole institution. As a result, senior and middle-level leaders never appropriated the vision, and there was very little institutional memory in place when the time came to engage in a new round of strategic visioning. Fogleman’s tenure corrected these deficiencies by putting in place a process that involved both current and future leaders of the institution. Also in place were a strategic planning structure, processes, and an institutional memory that the next leaders could fall back on when the time came to engage in yet another round of long-range planning. Finally, the vision was widely disseminated both within the Air Force and outside of it to major stakeholders. As a result, the process of visioning and long-range planning became self-sustaining even after Fogleman’s early resignation.

Successful tools for strategic visioning and long-range planning. The experience of the USAF shows that relatively simple tools can go a long way in assisting strategic visioning and long-range planning. As strategic planning took hold within the USAF it became supported by more elaborate analytical tools in the form of war games and studies.

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Realistic expectations about strategic visioning and long-range planning. Initially, USAF planners had high expectations about the outcomes of strategic visioning. They thought that the vision would lead to precise objectives that, in turn, could be integrated into a detailed plan for implementation. However, attempts to develop bridges between highly conceptual competencies and future capabilities and short-term plans proved to be extremely difficult. Ultimately it was recognized that the value of visioning and long-range planning lay more in providing criteria to evaluate specific projects, than in providing detailed guidance. Similarly, the initial impetus for identifying core competencies (and later critical capabilities) was to identify areas the USAF could dis-invest from in order to invest in core competencies. In practice, no dis-investment resulted, and core competencies (and critical capabilities) instead served to position the institution within the broader defence policy-making environment and to articulate requests for funds.

Visioning and long-range planning cannot be done on the cheap. The USAF process for visioning took a significant amount of time from the Chief of Staff, senior leaders, and a group of middle-rank leaders. Their efforts were supported by a staff organization dedicated totally to long-range planning and by the studies of a range of organizations, both internal (e.g., Air University, Air Force Studies and Analysis Agency) and external (e.g., RAND Corp, and defence contractors). In addition, from 1998 on, these efforts were supported by future-oriented war games designed to validate the general thrusts of the vision.

The role of contingency. Strategic planners do not have complete control over their environment. Just as in war, friction, chance, timing, and the actions of others can contribute to success or failure. Barzelay and Campbell’s account mentions at various points how contingent and external factors affected the USAF visioning process. Contingency included the Gulf War and the Kosovo Air Campaign and how airpower assisted in determining the outcomes of these conflicts. The aura of operational success in the 1990s created a policy audience willing to listen to the arguments of the USAF about its future. Strategic planning and visioning in the USAF was also assisted by the predictability of the US policy-making process. The defence review process is set by the calendar of the Quadrennial Defense Reviews, and USAF planners can therefore adjust their visioning process so that it produces a vision statement at the point where it can have the greatest impact on the policy process. This cannot be as easily replicated in Canada.

Barzelay and Campbell’s book provides a balanced and comprehensive examination of the complexities of strategic visioning and long-range planning. The USAF experience they recount is full of lessons, and those who have been involved in long-range planning over the last few years within DND and the CF will see numerous differences as well as similarities in the processes adopted by both institutions to prepare their future.

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Dr. Thierry Gongora is a strategic analyst attached to the Directorate of Air Strategic Plans in National Defence Headquarters.