From inactivism to interactivism – managerial attitudes to planning
Managers display a range of attitudes towards planning for the future. In an essay entitled Systems, Messes and Interactive Planning, the management guru/philosopher Russell Ackoff classified attitudes to organizational planning into four distinct types which I describe in detail below. I suspect you may recognise examples of each of these in your organisation…indeed, you might even see shades of yourself🙂
This attitude, as its name suggests, is characterized by a lack of meaningful action. Inactivism is often displayed by managers in organisations that favour the status quo. These organisations are happy with the way things are, and therefore see no need to change. However, lack of meaningful action does not mean lack of action. On the contrary, it often takes a great deal of effort to fend off change and keep things the way they are. As Ackoff states:
Inactive organizations require a great deal of activity to keep changes from being made. They accomplish nothing in a variety of ways. First, they require that all important decisions be made “at the top.” The route to the top is deliberately designed like an obstacle course. This keeps most recommendations for change from ever getting there. Those that do are likely to have been delayed enough to make them irrelevant when they reach their destination. Those proposals that reach the top are likely to be farther delayed, often by being sent back down or out for modification or evaluation. The organization thus behaves like a sponge and is about as active…
The inactive manager spends a lot of time and effort in ensuring that things remain the way they are. Hence they act only when a stituation forces them to. Ackoff puts it in his inimitable way by stating that, “Inactivist managers tend to want what they get rather than get what they want.”
Reactivist managers are a step worse than inactivists because they believe that disaster is already upon them. This is the type of manager who hankers after the “golden days of yore when things were much better than they are today.” As a result of their deep unease of where they are now, they may try to undo the status quo. As Ackoff points out, unlike inactivists, reactivists do not ride the tide but try to swim against it.
Typically reactivist managers are wary of technology and new concepts. Moreover, they tend to give more importance to seniority and experience rather than proven competence. They also tend to be fans of simplistic solutions to complex problems…like “solving” the problem of a behind-schedule software project by throwing more people at it.
Preactivists are the opposite of reactivists in that they believe the future is going to be better than the past. Consequently, their efforts are geared towards understanding what the future will look like and how they can prepare for it. Typically, preactive managers are concerned with facts, figures and forecasts; they are firm believers in scientific planning methods that they have learnt in management schools. As such, one might say that this is the most common species of manager in present day organisations. Those who are not natural preactivists will fly the preactivist flag when they’re asked for their opinions by their managers because it’s the expected answer.
A key characteristic of preactivist managers is that they tend to revel in creating plans rather than implementing them. As Ackoff puts it, “Preactivists see planning as a sequence of discrete steps which terminate with acceptance or rejection of their plans. What happens to their plans is the responsibility of others.”
Interactivists planners are not satisfied with the present, but unlike reactivists or preactivists, they do not hanker for the past, nor do they believe the future is automatically going to be better. They do want to make things better than they were or currently are, but they are continually adjusting their plans for the future by learning from and responding to events. In short, they believe they can shape the future by their actions.
Experimentation is the hallmark of interactivists. They are willing to try different approaches and learn from them. Although they believe in learning by experience, they do not want to wait for experiences to happen; they would rather induce them by (often small-scale) experimentation.
Ackoff labels interactivists as idealisers – people who pursue ideals they know cannot be achieved, but can be approximated or even reformulated in the light of new knowledge. As he puts it:
They treat ideals as relative absolutes: ultimate objectives whose formulation depends on our current knowledge and understanding of ourselves and our environment. Therefore, they require continuous reformulation in light of what we learn from approaching them.
To use a now fashionable term, interactivists are intrapreneurs.
Although Ackoff shows a clear bias towards interactivists in his article, he does mention that specific situations may call for other types of planners. As he puts it:
Despite my obvious bias in my characterization of these four postures, there are circumstances in which each is most appropriate. Put simply, if the internal and external dynamics of a system (the tide) are taking one where one wants to go and are doing so quickly enough, inactivism is appropriate. If the direction of change is right but the movement is too slow, preactivism is appropriate. If the change is taking one where one does not want to go and one prefers to stay where one is or was, reactivism is appropriate. However, if one is not willing to settle for the past, the present or the future that appears likely now, interactivism is appropriate.
The key point he makes is that inactivists and preactivists treat planning as a ritual because they see the future as something they cannot change. They can only plan for it (and hope for the best). Interactivists, on the other hand, look for opportunities to influence events and thus potentially change the future. Although both preactivists and interactivists are forward-looking, interactivists tend to be long-term thinkers as compared to preactivists who are more concerned about the short to medium term future.
Ackoff’s classification of planners in organisations is interesting because it highlights the kind of future-focused attitude that managers ought to take. The sad fact, though, is that a significant number of managers are myopic preactivists, focused on this year’s performance targets rather than what their organisations might look like five or even ten years down the line. This is not the fault of individuals, though. The blame for the undue prevalence of myopic preactivism can be laid squarely on the deep-seated management dogma that rewards short-termism.