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Navigating the Nexus: The art of strategy in public governance

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By Abdulrauf Aliyu

In the heart of the confluence city of Lokoja, Kogi State, Nigeria, a diverse group of senior leaders from across the six North Central states had gathered at the Ganaja School of Policy & Governance for a four-week Senior Leadership Course. The aim of this program was not just to impart knowledge but to instill a deeper understanding of strategy, its intricacies, and its indispensable role in crafting policies that create Public Value.

Amidst the serene backdrop of the confluence of the Niger and Benue rivers, these leaders delved into the labyrinthine world of strategy, a subject often misunderstood and wrongly equated with planning. Our story unfolds in this setting, where the distinction between strategy and strategic planning came to life with vivid clarity.

The Distinction Between Strategy and Planning

As the course commenced, Dr. Amina, a renowned scholar in public administration, addressed the participants. She began by challenging their preconceived notions about strategy. “Is strategy a plan, ploy, position, pattern, or perspective, or all of the five?” she asked, referring to Henry Mintzberg’s framework.

She elucidated that while planning is a crucial component of any strategic process, strategy encompasses much more. It’s not just a static blueprint but a dynamic, multifaceted concept. “Strategy,” she declared, “is about making choices – the choices required to play to win.”

Roger Martin’s Definition of Strategy

Dr. Amina invoked Roger Martin’s definition of strategy as “a set of choices required to play to win.” She explained that strategy isn’t about creating a meticulous plan; it’s about making informed decisions that lead to a competitive advantage. “In the context of public governance,” she added, “it’s about creating Public Value.”

“Public Value,” she continued, “refers to the tangible and intangible benefits that public policies and actions generate for the citizens they serve. It’s about improving their lives, fostering social well-being, and addressing pressing issues effectively.”

Strategy Needs a Strategy

As the weeks progressed, the participants grappled with the complexities of crafting strategies for their respective states. It became evident that strategy itself needed a strategy. Dr. Amina elucidated this concept, drawing from the works of renowned strategists.

“Every strategy,” she explained, “must align with the unique context and objectives of the organization or, in this case, the state government. However, this alignment should be guided by a strategic perspective that considers the larger societal goals and future scenarios.”

The Role of Scenarios and Foresight

To drive home this point, Dr. Amina introduced the concept of scenarios and foresight. She encouraged the leaders to engage in “future back thinking,” a method of envisioning the future they desired and working backward to identify the strategic choices required to get there.

In the bustling classroom, the leaders immersed themselves in crafting scenarios for their states. They envisioned a future with thriving economies, resilient healthcare systems, and empowered citizens. This exercise illuminated the path forward and revealed that strategy should be adaptable and forward-looking.

Avoiding Isomorphic Mimicry and Premature Loadbearing

Dr. Amina cautioned against the pitfalls of “isomorphic mimicry” and “premature loadbearing,” terms coined by Lant Pritchett and Matt Andrews. Isomorphic mimicry refers to the tendency of organizations to imitate what seems successful elsewhere without considering the local context. Premature loadbearing is the rush to implement a strategy without sufficient preparation.

“These pitfalls,” Dr. Amina emphasized, “can lead to policies and actions that do not create Public Value. Instead, they might perpetuate inefficiencies and ineffectiveness.”

The Critical Role of Leadership

As the course neared its end, the leaders had gained a profound understanding of strategy’s nuances. They realized that leadership was at the heart of effective strategy execution. Dr. Amina shared a poignant quote by John C. Maxwell: “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.”

“Leaders,” she asserted, “are not just decision-makers but visionaries who inspire and guide their teams. They understand that strategy isn’t a one-time task but an ongoing process that requires adaptability and resilience.”

Conclusion: Strategy Is Not Planning

In the closing session of the Senior Leadership Course at Ganaja School of Policy & Governance, the leaders had undergone a transformation in their understanding of strategy. They now comprehended that strategy was not merely planning, but a dynamic process of making choices to achieve a vision. It was about creating Public Value and fostering social well-being.

As they departed, ready to apply their newfound knowledge and strategic perspective, they carried with them the wisdom that strategy should come first. Only by embracing a future-focused mindset, avoiding mimicry, and continuously adapting could they truly serve their states and their citizens effectively.

In the nexus of the Niger and Benue rivers, these leaders had learned a crucial lesson: strategy was the compass guiding them through the ever-changing landscape of public governance. It was the art of making choices, of playing to win, and of creating a brighter future for all.

Abdulrauf Aliyu
An economist and Policy Analyst writes from
45 Ashiru Road, U/Dosa New Extension

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