With disruptions to them inevitable, Are strategies in youthwork worth the paper they’re written on?

Its not a negative question, but a realistic one; With all the disruptions to a strategy especially in youthwork- is it even worth bothering with one? Is it even possible to develop strategies for ‘industries’ that are so unpredictable, and people orientated? A possible solution is below, but first the case for the prosecution. Why strategies dont work…

It can feel like a strategy for youthwork practice isnt worth the paper, the time or energy to put together – because its disrupted and in need of change almost immediately.

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Because; ask a group of youthworkers about the successful of the strategies that they have been able to complete, as you will nearly always find a whole load of reasons why this wasn’t the case.

They didn’t have the power to execute it

They ran out of funding

A volunteer pulled out

The Bishop decided upon an event instead and my time was re orientated

Young people just aren’t straightforward

The trustees change their minds on the plan

Its just not how things are done in this organisation

and the rest…

There a fairly common saying ‘Culture Eats strategy for breakfast’ and whilst this is true, this hides some of the other disruptions that affect the implementation an success of a strategy. The problem can then become that a strategy might need then to incorporate the cultural issues – as well as all the potential risks and hazards that affect the strategy- so in terms of the above – it might need to include

A funding strategy

A volunteers strategy

A strategy to affect culture

A strategy to deal the volunteers

A strategy to convince the ‘higher’ powers of the value of youthwork – such as the heads of affiliation

A strategy to be flexible to overcome the potential disruptions………..

And in that way, having a strategy that can overcome the disruptions, and be that flexible when these unplanned disruptions occurs almost defeats the object of bothering with developing a strategy in the first place, or not far off. Even the most creatively created, participatory planned and organisationally owned strategy. It may be concise, communicated and coordinated, it may intend to be effective and easy to understand. The strategy might incorporate values, be step by step, measurable and time orientated – and have all the bells and appropriate whistles. But it could all go to waste because of the so many factors that could still cause it to be disrupted. Though at the same time developing and redeveloping strategy, aim and vision – revising, revisiting and reviewing it then become regular. But doesn’t it seem like a lot of time, and managerial, leadership effort – for something too easily challenged and changed.

It would become so broad to encompass the potential disruptions – that to be alomost meaningless, and so flexible to adapt to them to be unspecific.

Some of the business gurus when talking about strategies say that a strategy is nearly always going to be unsuccessful if there is no attempt to name the problems that the strategy is trying to solve.

I wonder whether in youthwork we have become fixated by outcome orientated strategies, because these are often what we feel we have been asked to compile, as often our management group, committee or clergy have understood strategy through the prism of transformational and visional leadership (which sets outcomes and prioritised conformity to these fixed outcomes, elevating the ‘transformational leader’ to set and create ‘their’ strategy within cost cutting/efficiency/ and setting outcomes and indicators first) that has been adopted relatively uncritically over the last 10-15 years in orgaisations.

However. Outcome orientated strategy is barely worth the paper it is written on. Youth workers require an alternative.

What about this;

Good strategy, in contrast, works by focusing energy and resources on one, or a very few, pivotal objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of favourable outcomes. It also builds a bridge between the critical challenge at the heart of the strategy and action—between desire and immediate objectives that lie within grasp. Thus, the objectives that a good strategy sets stand a good chance of being accomplished, given existing resources and competencies.

In short – good strategy is about making the right conditions exist, for the potential for the most opportunities to occur – that are favourable to the aims and objectives, and that use the resources and competencies known to the organisation. It is opportunity orientated, not outcome orientated. Opportunities are things we create the environment for. Outcomes are too unpredictable in youthwork that can be disrupted in too many ways. But we can create positive environments that endeavour to facilitate opportunities.

And in youthwork, those opportunities can happen anywhere. The streets, schools, churches and youth clubs. The problem with an opportunity led strategy is that it needs to be close to the action with young people. Or creating opportunities for training, for supervision, for something else that involves equipping, resourcing and supporting youthworkers – then one step removed from the action – but also close to those who are – but that doesn’t negate opportunity orientated strategy – but that the opportunities might be less frequent than the ‘on the ground’ practice.

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Opportunity orientated strategy might suit the openness of youthork closer than an outcome orientated strategy. It also places the emphasis on the agency of those responsible for the strategy to deliver it – through opportunity creation, not dehumanising young people as numbers or potential outcomes, or being frustrated that ideals, or targets havent been met.

The question is – can we afford to develop ‘opportunity’ orientated strategies in a culture of cut throat funding that often seems to demand targets and outcomes – or have we got in some cases the favour an capital to take a risk and communicate opportunity orientated strategy. Often we are asked in funding bids ‘what are we going to do about a situation’ – which a cue to share the proposed opportunities- but as well we might need to be specific about the outcomes – which goes against the flexibility of an opportunity orientated strategy – pushing and driving it to numbers based. It might be a luxury to be able to construct an solely opportunity orientated strategy for youthwork practice. But – on the other hand – it a luxury we might want to afford ourselves given the almost pointless practice of trying to create outcome orientated strategies – that get eaten alive in the culture of organisations and in need of constant revision.

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If were not able in the culture of our organisations to create opportunities for young people and those who work them – then we might need to question what kind of young people orientated practice we are.

With an opportunity orientated strategy it is less affected, to an extent, by disruptions- because we do have slightly more agency in its realisation. Though even then the level of disruption can still disorientate strategy – especially if the resources become so slim that opportunity creation is minimalised – but again at that point- we will be spending time increasing our resources, changing approaches and adapting to the disruption –which might turn out to have surprising results. We might not have enough leaders to manage the youth club – so we take our presence and provision out onto the streets (for example) a change which might end up creating new opportunities – even more that we hadn’t predicted before hand.

In the opportunities might emerge the disruptions we are looking for. The next bright idea might emerge from the point of action.

References on Strategy and Management in Youthwork can be found on this page on this site: https://wp.me/P2Az40-QV- or via the menus above, and many more on strategy in youthwork and managing strategies can be found via the tags and menus. For further on this and maybe to develop the conversation, contact me via the menu and arrange training or workshops on the theme.

Special mention to Jon Ords book which talks about faith based management , and also in his introduction critiques the transformational leadership that has brought forward outcome orientated strategy building.

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