Ever notice how politicians say stuff that doesn’t match up to what’s happening on the ground? Or how institutions will draw up an elaborate policy that seems to lead absolutely nowhere?

An interesting way to understand this by using the Rumelt framework, which is one of the tools we teach in the Strategic Thinking course at UCT . It comes from Richard Rumelt’s book “Good Strategy, Bad Strategy”, where it is referred to as the “kernel” of a good strategy. The framework breaks an effective strategy into three components:

  • Diagnose: a good diagnosis provides a comprehensive understanding of the nature of the problem that needs to be addressed
  • Guiding Policy: this outlines the person/organisation’s overarching approach to the issue. It’s helps direct the steps that are then taken.
  • Coherent Action: a coherent set of actions are ones that flow from the guiding policy and diagnosis. They target the issue/goal directly and are effective in doing so. As stated in the book, “resource deployments, policies and manoeuvres that are undertaken should be consistent and coordinated

Now, there are a number of ways that organisations get this wrong. I’m going to demonstrate this with two examples from my alma mater, UCT.

Example #1: Water Policy at the University of Cape Town

As we all know, Cape Town is in the middle of a water crisis and we are very close to running out. Everyone is trying to do their bit to save water, and it appears that UCT are trying too. The University has sent out a numerous emails, put up massive banners all over campus and tried to engage in the conversation around the issue.

However, these actions are baseless fluff when you look at what’s happening on the ground. For example, there is a really easy way to save water in men’s bathrooms. Urinals can be fitted with something like the Lilydome waterless valve which would save between 130 000 and 200 000 litres of water per year per urinal. 

But at present, almost all urinals on UCT upper campus use water instead of a system such as this. Even if we conservatively estimate that there are 100 urinals on campus, installing these would mean saving between 13 and 20 million litres a year.

Another measure that has been employed at the Graduate School of Business (which functions separately to the main UCT campus) is that the taps in the bathroom have been turned off and hand sanitisers installed in their place. They’ve also got Lilydomes installed in all their urinals. In this way, the male bathrooms have been made almost entirely waterless, with the exception of the toilets.

So let’s look at the UCT Water Policy using the Rumelt framework:

  • Diagnosis: we need to save water
    • Good. We’re all on board with this.
  • Guiding Policy: reduce water consumption as much as possible around our campuses
    • Still good. That sounds like a great policy to have
  • Coherent Action: lots of emails. And giant banners. Lots of giant banners. And opinion pieces on our website and in every news source we can get our name into
    • And here is where it falls apart. Their actions make it seem like they’re trying to do something. In reality, their impact would only be felt through the awareness they raise. It’s not wrong. But there are much more effective ways of reducing water usage at the University.

We could craft a simple coherent action using the Lilydome example. Each of the banners that UCT printed probably cost around R2000. I’ve seen 4 of them. Each Lilydome costs around R400. So instead of spending R8000 on 4 posters, spend it on 20 Lilydomes. And that single , coherent action would save 2.6mil – 4mil litres per year. Done.

Example #2: Mental Health Policy at the University of Cape Town

This is a more complex and sensitive subject. It is in need of serious attention at UCT, and I won’t be able to go into it in detail. But here is brief an analysis of what took place in 2017 in terms of the Rumelt Framework.

Last year, after pressure from students and in light of a number of suicides UCT spent around 8 months developing a Mental Health Policy. A task team was set up, numerous meetings were held, and information about it was included in the newsletters. At the end of December a draft policy was published on the website.

While this was happening, an article came out on the UCT about a student who had invented an innovative grey water system for households. The opening line of the article described how he was unable to register at UCT in 2017 due to a lack of funds. In other words, UCT had financially excluded him but still wanted to take the credit for his water saving system (see example #1 above).

Two months later, this student was found dead after “falling” from the top floor of a building. The investigation is ongoing, and it may or may not have been suicide.

However, there were 6 deaths of this nature in 2017. Some have been declared as suicides, some are still under investigation.

And this is where the problem lies. UCT spent 8 months and a significant portion of their resources in coming up with a mental health policy. And while they were sitting in their offices doing so, the situation kept getting worse on the ground.

Let’s look at this in terms of the Rumelt framework:

  • Diagnosis: there is a high suicide rate (and we’re under pressure about it)
    • This is a problem but it’s not the correct diagnosis. A proper diagnosis would involve going onto the ground and understanding why this is the case. And doing this doesn’t just involve holding open meetings on campus. It means going and finding students, talking to them and discerning the nature of the problem. The actual problems may lie in insufficient academic support, a shortage of funds or lack of mental health resources available (i.e. it can take months to get a booking for a psychologist at UCT)
  • Guiding Policy: get together a task team that may have little connection to the students. Have meetings. Host open feedback sessions. Develop 17 page policy
    • A proper guiding policy should be simple and show intent. The UCT mental health policy does not do this. So much of it is definitions and empty, fluffy statements. Instead, a policy could be something as simple as “Assist students with the financial, administrative and systematic support across academic, residential and student wellness services.” Done.
  • Action: send out the policy in an email. Get it put in the news. Share phone numbers
    • Look, I’m sure the policy outlines some important stuff. But ultimately, students are in the same position as they were before. The policy is based on a poor diagnosis of the problem and there are very few tangible, coherent actions. An example of an action might be to have a system that identifies students have been financially/academically excluded and assign a councillor to them. Or to provide more resources to the Student Wellness Centre.

The UCT mental health policy is not all bad. It shows intent from the university and has some provisions that may help. My concern is that there are better ways to craft a strategy to address the issue. The university needs to understand the problem better, make their policy clear (it doesn’t have to be a 20 page document) and follow through with coherent well thought through actions. A bureaucratic approach won’t help, we need to get on the ground to fix it.

Connecting our diagnosis, policy and action

Developing a strategy to address an issue is a difficult task, particularly when resources to do so are stretched thin and the issue is complex. However, it is important to make sure that the resources you do have go effectively into solving the problem. Raising awareness is fine, but it amounts to meaningless fluff if there is no proper set of actions in place to solve it.

I’ve used UCT as an example but this is the case at many institutions and organisations around the world. We can do better with how we fix problems. We just need to spend a little more time on our strategies, instead of trying to make it appear to the outside world like we’re doing something.

Ultimately, by developing an effective strategy that with a proper diagnosis, a good guiding policy and coherent set of actions we will be far more effective in solving our issues.

Image is of a poster on upper campus UCT. There were a number of these hung up over campus. Instead of spending money on these, UCT could have developed actual, coherent actions

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