Strategic Visioning: Real Planning or Just Old Hat?

Gary White - Chief Planner MacroPlan Friday, 7 November 2014

When the Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) asked me if I would prepare an article on strategic vision my initial thought was ‘why bother you heard it all before’. At the same time I had been talking to a very good mate of mine, a classical engineer by trade, about his attitude following a recent brush he had with the planning system.

What we need from you (planners) is vision in your so called plans.  You don’t know how to do that stuff anymore; plans are just rules, processes, regulations and all that other stuff. That’s nuts and bolts sh** which any tradesman on my building sites would be able to do.  I thought we had educated planners to present visions and solutions for places in the future. Got that wrong didn’t I! I just made what was called a “fast track application”; paying additional fees to have an insignificant part of my planning application receives pecial consideration, increasing the height of my boundary fence from 1.8 m to 2 m high, not even the length of a subway bun. That was three weeks ago and I still haven’t heard, you can stuff it, if that is what planning is about?” Why is it so hard to see that the height of a half-eaten sub way bun will not make any difference, god help us if that’s planning?”

Following that not-so-soft serve up, I accepted PIA's offer to prepare an article on strategic visioning. What I’d been served up by my engineering friend seemed to be a reflection of what planning has become, even prompting me to ask a question of myself; “Am I practising in a process which is planning or is a plan just another term for the massing of rules and regulations with no end in mind?”.

Many used to blame lawyers for frolicking in that space and making planning so complex, but blaming lawyers is no longer an excuse. This carcass of complexity is now the domain of other blow flies, in addition to some of the pin striped variety. Such is the level of complexity that I think some Clown Tanners and political decision makers have actually succeeding in confusing the lawyers as well.  If that is what is wanted of planning in 2014, who am I to say whether this is right or wrong; perhaps I just have to accept it is what it is and just suck it in.

Having said the above, I can say that this suffocating notion of planning is clearly at odds with its real meaning and is not what I consider to be real planning, so I cannot just suck it in.

Planning is a proactive term which relates to ‘future achievement’ and logically suggests that a plan is something which should typically be used to achieve an outcome (perhaps a vision), enabled by steps within a framework (perhaps the planning scheme). Having long been a fan of strategic visioning and its positive contribution to a more strategic and constructive approach to planning, I thought I would respond firstly to the legitimate criticisms of planning by my engineering colleague and secondly PIA's request for an article, and present a more positive attribute of planning.

I have been involved in developing visions, or selecting outcome scenarios, and then had the opportunity to see words and pictures evolve into solutions. This is my experience of the more positive side of this stuff we call ‘planning’.

Strategic visioning is an integral part of the overall scenario selection process in planning, and the selection and acknowledgement of a preferred outcome.  It is used to select the preferred position or direction an entity, organisation, company or community wants to move towards. This aligns with the more proactive interpretation of planning which was raised in the preceding paragraph. The selection of scenarios will depend on the circumstances which evolve or can involve for an organisation or the community undertaking the development of a particular vision.

Critics of the process will often tell you that strategic visioning it is just warm fluffy stuff or aspirational padding. I accept this view if the exercise ends up being one of developing a vision with no follow up delivery programme. This contrasts with an approach to strategic visioning which results in the development of robust delivery platforms which are committed to by an organisation, community or level of government in order to achieve a vision. Turning the visioning process from “Fluff into Fire” or alternatively, giving the warm fluffy teddy bear the sharp teeth and claws of a grizzly to deliver.

Strategic visioning is a simple but basic element in a strategic planning process. This notion of having or stating a vision can be put in many ways, for example:

  • to paint the picture;
  • cast forward to another place;
  • telling the future story or try to imagine a feature of a future destination; and
  • arriving at a place or basically just having a dream.

I get the impression it is considered sooky for planning or planners to present the notion of developing a strategic vision, instead just get on and start doing “something” even if it’s a journey of not knowing where you are heading or why you are doing so many something’s, perhaps that is what my engineering friend had experienced.

Bryce Courtenay said of the notion of dreaming:

“We need to dream; soaring imagination is the glue that keeps our soul from shattering under the impact of the prosaic world. The act of dreaming can be a tricky business and, if were not careful, disappear altogether from our lives.”

To some extent I think this is what has happened of planning and many planners are not given the opportunity to be involved in the ‘Dreaming’. When I was doing a presentation in Mackay a young planner told me of planning:

“Mr. White you don’t understand what it is like to work as a DA planner, we don’t get the opportunity to consider what we are assessing towards.”

I was caught off guard by the comment but it is something which I have heard many times before. It is often reinforced with commentary like ‘they are in the strategic planning section’ and ‘this section is different from us, who are responsible for the DA stuff’.

Unfortunately many in strategic planning sections do not get the chance to do strategic visioning and develop strategic plans either, but are caught up in trying to second guess what might be a problem rather than being able to create outcome focused plans, instead trying to second guess what might be a problem and respond with another roll of barbed wire.

I contrast this with times in my career where I had the opportunity to work in the strategic planning space, being involved in the preparation of a vision,  followed by the opportunity to see this vision materialise through the DA process in a manner consistent with the outcome which had been sought. I found this very rewarding and consider it sad that so many of our planners are unlikely to experience this very rewarding part of the profession we are involved in.

Bryce Courtenay put forward a receipt for dreaming:

“Dream it in detail. Put it into your own hands. See an outcome clearly. Mix it with a little effort and add generous portions of self-discipline. Flavour with a wholesome pinch of ambition. Stir briskly with confidence until the mixture becomes clear, the doubts separated from the opportunities. Then bake it in a moderate mind and the dreams rises. Decorate with individuality. Cut into generous portions and serve with justifiable pride. Approched in this manner life is a piece of cake”

Perhaps approached in this manner planning might also become a piece of cake.

What about turning this type of recipe into a plan? Fifty years ago the island of Singapore was essentially a small, strategically located settlement at the southern tip of the Malaysia peninsula with a claim to fame of being part of the British Empire. Under a strategic recipe which had four main ingredients, they did the following:

  • Dreamt it;
  • Designed it;
  • Developed it; and
  • Delivered it

This small island has become an economic powerhouse and transport hub in Southeast Asia.  Whilst accepting there was not a great deal of community consultation and involvement in the process of change it has never the less been transformative, and something which the Singaporean people are now very proud of.

The power of visioning is that it can create a future state or condition which can serve as a motivating force. It may initially appear as an abstract idea but when people begin to see that it can be achieved it can become a powerful guiding principle. Being visionary is often touted as a competency of leadership. Planning needs to show this leadership and strategic visioning is a necessary ingredient for competent strategic planning. Like my engineer friend, if you were to ask the average person in the street who they would expect to provide visions of the future or strategic direction, they would probably have some expectation that it would be planners.

A  Vision process can be used to create a compelling picture of a future state and represent a necessary and quantum change from the past, develop a memorable imagery story  about the benefits of a particular future and be worked backwards to understand the journey and take people in the community through processes and delivery platforms towards that vision.

Robust visioning processes that engage the community through the exploration possibilities in this modern world using different media to portray possible futures and engaging leadership can be energising for an organisation or community looking towards its future. It can help planners and organisations break out of the overly constrained view of the future and are a powerful way of tying values to actions to plans.

The utopia or dream can generally be articulated by one or more phases or vision statements which brief proclamations that can convey the community’s dreams for future. Prof. John Kotter in Leading Change (Harvard University Press, 1996) identified key characteristics of effective visioning.

  • Imaginable: conveying a picture of what the future will look like.
  • Desirable: appeals to and inspires communities, constituents, employees of a company, customers and others who may be stakeholders in a particular process. It should be broad enough to allow a diverse variety of local perspectives to be encompassed with them
  • Focused: is clear enough to provide guidance in decision-making.
  • Flexible: generally enough to allow individual initiatives and alternatives to be considered and respond in the light of likely changing conditions.
  • Communicable: easy to understand and communicate, and can be successfully explained in two minutes.

Visioning can be used to help our community create images that can help to guide change in the city or to find consensus around the solution to a problem or problems. There can be no doubt that crystallising a vision is only the start of creating a solid strategic planning platform. If there is no substance or fire in a vision for the future, how would it is possible to infuse the vision as achievable qualities into the rest of the strategic plan? Or more importantly into the organisation such as a Council or the community as a whole.

A vision must constitute a well-defined ‘word picture of the desired future state of an organisation, enterprise or community that people can see clearly’. JFK understood this when he created the mental picture of ‘a man landing on the moon and returning him safely to earth.’ Whilst this was in part political one-upmanship trying to serve one on the then Soviet Union, it nevertheless put in place one of the most sophisticated delivery platforms, resulting in the vision being achieved.

This logic of casting a vision of a future state does not have to be precluded from the current delivery of planning and neither do we always have to have complicated assessment platforms and regulations. If one knows what is wanted, and this has been gleaned through a visioning process or the selection of a particular outcome scenario, it should not be difficult to enable easy delivery boxes to be put in place for the things you know are wanted and perhaps other boxes test more rigorously that which you are not sure. Instead of being faced with a system of not being sure about anything, no vision and no direction so we have got to a check everything.

As previously mentioned, I have had the opportunity to engage in the type of planning created by strategic visioning at all levels, from an overarching local government perspective to more detailed tight CBD and town centre plans. On all occasions the strategic planning process which followed resulted in a solid achievement of what the vision had sought. From the planning perspective this was a very rewarding and worthwhile experience. One thing you don’t get hung up with under this model or approach is that you’ve got to get it 100% right, because you won’t. At the end of the day you don’t have to get it 100% right. If the process achieves or advances 60% of the vision it will probably be 60% better off than having done nothing.

For anyone interested in following a simple visioning model - pickup or Google a document called “A guide to community visioning”, produced in Oregon USA by communities interested in looking at planning through a different set of lenses. Some may already have worked with a gentleman called Stephen Ames who assisted in the development of the Oregon model discussed in this document. He has participated on a number of projects too here in Queensland.

Visioning is a very rewarding planning exercise and could be an antidote to some of the negativity which has becomes a hallmark of planning. Yes, it may be old hat to some but to others if you haven’t tried it and get the chance to be involved in a strategic visioning exercise, take up the challenge because you might find it pleasantly rewarding.

My closing response to my engineering colleague, I have a vision: ‘Upgrading of an intrusive service station offers an opportunity to provide screening and buffering to adjacent properties’.

Does a 1.8 metre high fence with a subway bun width capping on top enable a solution to the vision? Yes? Approved.

Read this last paragraph through; as long as it takes you to read it is as long as it should take to conclude an approval.

Mate, you shouldn’t have to wait for 3 weeks and the planning system does not need to behave and treat you the way it has. You are right, that wasn’t planning.


About MacroPlan: MacroPlan provides a range of planning services from pre-acquisition due diligence, strategic assessment and conceptual planning through to rezoning and development approval and project implementation.  Our planners work with our in-house economists and analysts (and other consultant experts) to evaluate social, economic and environmental factors that contribute to the success of projects.  Our multi-disciplinary approach delivers outcomes that focus on evidence, identifying development opportunities and optimal project outcomes, and clarifying pathways to achieving development approval.  Contact Joel Taylor, National General Manager - Business Development today to discuss your property research requirements.