Winter 1988 // Volume 26 // Number 4 // Futures // 4FUT1

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Planning Policy for the Future


Marsha R. Mueller
Evaluation Specialist
University of Minnesota-St. Paul

Issues Programming in Extension1 officially recognizes our turbulent times, urges organizational change, and provides guidelines for a journey into the future. It's an important statement.

I'm impressed with the diagnosis of our Extension System in the document. The diagnosis represents the best of our collective wisdom. However, I'm concerned about the proposed planning strategy. My concern is that we're replacing one "how-to-plan-it" strategy with a slightly modified edition. If our new strategy becomes policy, we may forfeit desperately needed innovation. We need to recognize the limits of bureaucratic2 program planning.

Bureaucratic Planning

Our strategy for issues programming is based on the belief that our discipline-oriented program planning limits our future. Perhaps we need to include planning policies as another limitation.

As an evaluator, I have the opportunity of closely examining programs from our disciplines. What I often see are programs that reflect vision and the willingness to make new linkages. I suspect that the kind of thinking we want to occur already exists to some extent and will meet the challenge of broad-based public issues. For example, our Minnesota Extension work with teen suicide, stray voltage, mediation, leadership development, or integrated pest management happens because our colleagues venture out of their disciplines.

What I see from many of my colleagues is innovative thinking followed by swift action-action that results in programs. And those programs are often defined after the fact. We evaluate what happened, describe what went on in implementation, and supply requisite empirical evidence to satisfy people who provide resources. To a great extent, we're orderly due to hindsight bias.3

Organizational theorists generally agree that bureaucratic planning will improve decision making when change moves slowly.4 But bureaucratic means don't accommodate multiple unexpected events. Bureaucratic planning to produce programs that are logical and linked to ends assumes that: (1) at some point in planning, a solution to the problem (end) will be created (that is, we now know or will know the answer); (2) the program components will cause the solution; and (3) the problem won't change while we're planning the program. Those assumptions seldom hold in our chaotic times. In addition, they're contrary to the very nature of public issues.

Issues are issues precisely because we don't have feasible solutions-alternatives possibly, but not solutions. Public issues and their alternative solutions are extraordinarily fickle and some issues never seem to go away (poverty, health care, abortion, war, discrimination). Defining an emerging public issue and specifying alternatives is much more than understanding issue life cycles, assessing the public pulse at a few points in time, or forecasting. We only need to look closely at the evolution of any public policy to sense the complexity of public issue evolution. Changing values and politics, not to mention technical feasibility, budgetary constraints, and global anomalies can create havoc for programmers who hold on to seemingly rational plans.5

The issues paper helps to define order and a much needed sense of direction in a period of chaos. But, if the proposed strategies become policy, they may limit the very flexibility and creativity we desperately need. A planning policy operationalizes a planning model and provides information for purposes of organizational accountability and control. For example, our current Extension planning policies include expectations for developing annual and four-year plans of work.

Usually, guidelines specify procedures, steps, and timelines to follow for creating plans of work (implementing the policy). Unfortunately, our thinking and action may focus on completing procedures and steps rather than the more complex ideas the model (and the policy) was intended to represent. Efficiency and habit predominate. When planning policies and procedures become rigid modes of operating, diversity of thinking is overlooked or, in the worst case, not tolerated.

Our issue paper calls for diversity in thinking (acceptance of new paradigms and changed perspectives applied to scenario development with broad-based groups) to identify and elaborate issues for subsequent program development. But the paper reinforces our traditional Extension planning paradigms to bridge the gap between issue identification and results. We will "predict" issue program outcomes with logical plans and measurable objectives.6 Programs and learner plans will be based on how we define with our teams "what ought to be." What we're offered are slight adjustments to traditional planning models.

Cultivation of Diversity

I'm not suggesting that we dispose of planning in favor of anarchy. I'm suggesting we forgo the efficiency of familiar planning policies and be inefficient for awhile. We need to cultivate and nurture diversity of means if we're to reach our ends.

Those who study organizations are making different kinds of suggestions than they were even a few years ago about what it takes for an organization to be successful. From the private sector, we're hearing more about effectiveness via inefficiency, experimentation, entrepreneurialism, and small starts. We're hearing less about controls, mass production, and economics of scale. For example, observers of high-tech companies have predicted the decline of our Silicon Valley start-up culture, only to find that it continues to thrive.7 The entrepreneur remains successful by focusing on the microcosm, utility to the customer, and remaining creative within the fast pace of high-tech change.

From the more familiar educational perspective, a recent issue of Phi Delta Kappan explores the impact of bureaucratic planning on educational reform. In "Contradictions of Reform,"8 McNeil attacks the top-down planning of proficiency-based education. She contends that educational reform, "...instead of holding up a variety of models for practice and learning from their strengths,...continues our historically flawed search for 'one best way' to run our schools."9

Changed perspectives and new ways of operating (action) do require new thinking. On the individual level, we're recognizing more about how novel ideas develop. In general, creativity and new ways of thinking occur when blocks are placed in normal thinking patterns, or standard casual behavior is unhooked (means unhooked from ends). When this happens, we take what we already know (old data) and recombine it in different ways - we alter the means.10 Sometimes blocks result from asking very simple questions. In a recent issue of Forbes, visionary physicist Carver Mead recalled the invention of the integrated circuit, "...(i)t came from a very, very stupid question about something we were doing that was even more stupid."11

We see examples of innovative thinking in local program planning all the time. One creative local program for shift workers evolved because a barrier was placed in normal operating behavior - the agent was unable to schedule an advisory committee meeting to include one member who worked alternating shifts. Combining what she already knew in new ways led to the development of an outstanding program for shift workers of local industries.

Another agent, who has established fruit and vegetable trials in his community, was concerned about the depressed economic situation in his region. He described taking a purposeful "step back" (unhooking). The result: a community economic development program based on flowers that involved over 250 volunteers, brought in $8,000 in support monies for the local program, and attracted over $40,000 in municipal orders that went to small bedding operations in the community. Both of these examples represent planning experiments - old data was combined in new ways. The outcomes weren't "predicted" in either case.


Do we encourage experimentation and new ways of thinking with national/state planning policies? Probably not. Peters offers an alternative in Thriving on Chaos.12 He emphasizes (and I'll interpret his words in our jargon) an organizational culture characterized by: (1) responsiveness to clientele; (2) fast-paced innovation in programs through pilots, experiments, and fast failures; (3) empowerment of all staff by involvement and teamwork; (4) developing leadership at all levels; and (5) new systems.

In discussing organizational systems, of which planning is one, Peters denounces conventional planning.

    Most plans and planning processes readily become bureaucratic (within two years)....Tomorrow's successful corporation will be a collection of skills and capabilities ever ready to pounce on brief market anomalies. Any useful...plan, or planning process, must focus upon the development and honing of these skills...rather than emphasize static approaches.13

Many of those themes exist in our issue paper. What's absent in Peter's remarks is the assumption that bureaucratic planning can control outcomes.

A Suggestion

The history of science suggests that new knowledge requires questioning of means.

    ...(W)ith the accumulation of knowledge and experience, one must sensibly expect that the progressive means of one generation will become...the obstacles to rational the next.14
We do need to plan, but we don't need bureaucratic planning procedures. We need a planning policy which, at times, can be ignored. We need a policy that will leave the door open for innovative thinking and action alternatives - in the context of planning.


1. Kathleen Dalgaard and others, Cooperative Extension System National Initiatives: Focus on Issues (St. Paul: Minnesota Extension Service, May 1988).

2. By bureaucratic, I mean standardized procedures characterized by some degree of inflexibility.

3. Karl E. Weick, "Sources of Order in Underorganized Systems: Themes in Recent Organizational Theory," in Organizational Theory and Inquiry the Paradigm Revolution, Yvonna S. Lincoln, ed. (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1985), p. 112.

4. W. H. Starbuck, "Organizations as Action Generators," American Sociological Review, XLVII (February 1983), 91-101.

5. See John W. Kingdom, Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies (Boston: Little, Borwn and Company, 1984), for a treatment of the rise and fall of domestic issues on the public agenda based on the Cohen-March-Olsen garbage can model of organizational choice.

6. Dalgaard and others, Cooperative Extension System National Initiatives, pp. 16-17.

7. George Gilder, "The Revitalization of Everything: The Law of the Microcosm," Harvard Business Review, LXVI (March 1988), 49-52.

8. Linda M. McNeil, "Contradictions of Control, Part 3: Contradictions of Reform," Phi Delta Kappan, LXIX (March 1988), 478-85.

9. Ibid., p. 485.

10. Karl E. Weick, "Re-Punctuating the Problem," in New Perspectives on Organizational Effectiveness , Paul S. Goodman and Johannes M. Pennings and Associates, eds. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1977), p. 199.

11. George Gilder, "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet-Carver Mead's Powerful Vision," Forbes, CXLI (April 4, 1988), 88-93.

12. Tom Peters, Thriving on Chaos (New York: Knopf, 1987).

13. Ibid., p. 510.

14. Robert Dahl and Charles E. Lindblom, Politics, Economics, and Welfare (New York: Harper and Row, 1953), p. 517. See also, Kurt Hubner, Critique of Scientific Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), pp. 111-16.