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GUEST COLUMN: Sarnia needs more strategic thinking

Published on

John G. Dickson

This autumn, city council will schedule some time to refresh Sarnia’s Corporate Strategic Plan.

The current document was last reviewed in 2008 — seven years (or two local elections) ago. Because the update will include public input opportunities, the following insight might just prove useful to everyone.

It’s typical to hear statements like this: “I’ve been here nine years and we’ve already done two Strategic Plans. My predecessor was here 10 years and he did two. Strategic planning is supposed to be the essence of leadership but it’s become a ritual with little relevance to how the community operates or the problems we have to solve.”

In part, this is because few plans are truly original. They are often flawed by imitation and faddism.

Most base projections on the recent past and borrow heavily from others. For example, when total quality management (TQM) was all the rage, everyone embraced TQM, before discovering its limitations.

Trendy planning doesn’t lead to strategic thinking; it inhibits it. To critics, the underlying issue is that the very enterprise of strategic planning is itself a fad, an activity that symbolizes good governance but doesn’t contribute much of substantive value.

Another fallacy is the assumption that ‘analysis through to eventual action” is superior to human judgment. Such formalized procedures almost never create novel strategies.

Instead, planners concentrate on means, not ends, on ‘how to do things’ rather than ‘why to do things.’

They pursue current objectives, instead of reconsidering which objectives should be pursued. That’s dangerous. For example, why did council spend $850,000 replacing a Front Street boardwalk overlooking a railway track and mounds of weeds? Did citizens agree?

Given the fundamental flaws of traditional planning, it’s time we replace it with strategic thinking. It’s time to re-examine the very concept of ‘strategy’ and simplify, rather than add more complexity. Should Sarnians still question council’s thrice-turned-down Modeland-Michigan/Berger development project? To many citizens it represented progress, not rejection. In short, are we planning ourselves right out of business?

The list of existing plans and initiatives is long:

* Integrated Community Sustainability Plan (2013)

* Sarnia Corporate Strategic Plan (2008)

* Future Focus document (2010)

* Official Plan, City of Sarnia (rev. 2014, Modeland Road issue)

* SLEP Strategic Plan (2015-18)

* City of Sarnia Asset Management Plan (20 year)

* Municipal Cultural Plan (County of Lambton)

* A $250,000 study to explore our ‘Creative Sector’

Is Sarnia missing the boat by reworking multiple plans that offer ‘thought leaders’ a convenient way to extend their careers but, in actuality, sink our economy further under the waves?

How many jobs go elsewhere when ‘strategic thinking’ is excluded from the ritual of updating a spectrum of plans.

Can council capture that number?

John G. Dickson is an independent, Sarnia-based consultant with 30 years of experience in the private and public sectors.



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