A paper exercise


not a swan

Once upon a time I had to write a plan.
I was the Directorate Performance Management officer, so I wrote the Directorate Plan.
I sat at my dining room table and I WROTE A PLAN.

Except I didn’t.

I wrote on a piece of paper and called it a plan, a bit like this piece of paper isn’t a swan, it’s a piece of paper folded up to look like a swan.

But my plan had the word “PLAN” on it in big letters on the front, with the council crest and everything. So it looked as much as I could make look like every other plan. Official, neat, considered, approved and robust. It passed for a plan, just as much as every other paper document with the word plan on it does. But it wasn’t really a plan.

It was a paper exercise.

If you work in a bureacracy you’ll probably spend most of your time on paper exercises.
Much like origami, it involves making things out of paper that look like real things.


not a frog

The game of paper exercise is to make things out of paper that everybody acts as if are IN FACT the real thing.

So this frog here would inspire chaos in the office, because hey look a frog in the office!

Except you don’t make paper look like animals, you make paper look like other pieces of paper. Not as exciting but much easier to do.

I made my plan look like a plan, but the test is whether other people treat it as a plan.

The most important test of a paper exercise is when it is taken into the executive board room for approval. They approve a piece of paper if it looks like the imaginary plan in their heads, just like the frog above looks like the frog in your head so you recognise it and say , hey a frog! The paper exercise continues with minor tweaks, small changes to things that disagree. Bit like that frog might be too dark green, how about we lighten it up a bit?


Still not a frog.

This isn’t a light hearted exercise though. People take this very seriously. Look at the document below. Capture

People take this paper exercise so seriously that it is a three layers deep paper exercise! Look it’s the preferred option (a paper exercise) of a development plan (a paper exercise) that is open to consultation (a paper exercise). So much paper, so few frogs.



not a crow

The main villains and victims of paper exercises are people like me, policy officers and the like. People who work at the corporate core. We spend our time creating paper exercises, mistaking them for reality, and inflicting them on other less deluded colleagues.

Here is someone employed in a similar public sector post to me, somewhere in the country, talking about their own layers of paper exercise in their organisation.

“We have a Corporate Plan and a Performance Framework that flows from this, encapsculating PIs and Priority Actions that will help deliver the Corporate Plan and / or measure its delivery. We call these Objective Delivery Plans, these sit alongside Service Improvement Plans”

That’s an awful lot of pieces of paper that would be better shaped into frogs or swans rather than pretending to be rational documents for controlling an organisation.

These tables from an approach called “Shadow side audit” shows where this belief in paper sits in opposition to.


On the left hand side is the organisation as it states it is.
On the right hand side is the so-called shadow side of the organisation, as it actually is.

The shadow side of the organisation is..

“All those things that substantially and consistently affect the productivity and quality of the working life of a business, for better or worse, but which are not found on organisation charts, in company manuals, or in the discussions that take place in formal meetings.”

People who indulge in paper exercises do so because they believe in the paper organisation rather than the actual organisation.

Any change activity that aims to change things by the method of changing a piece of paper will only change the paper organisation, not the one that actually exists. Changing paper is a paper exercise only.

The actual organisation is populated by people, not paper. Change happens at the level of people, not paper. This requires an entirely different approach, an approach of learning and psychology, not of cascaded objectives. One that proceeds at a pace and in the direction directed by what people learn, and not by a piece of paper with plan written on the cover.

I always remember someone saying to me that “Vanguard don’t do reports“, and there’s a reason, because they don’t work. If you want to change an organisation, change happens at the level of people, so don’t change things at the level of paper.

If you do want to change something, before you accidentally carry out your next paper exercise, here’s one simple question to ask yourself, …

“Am I about to create a new Word document?

This entry was posted in all wrong, command and control, plans, public sector, systems thinking and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to A paper exercise

  1. Simon Milner says:

    Very well put!


  2. antlerboy says:

    Good piece. Of course sometimes (occasionally – rarely), the paper represents a real plan and people are using it as a way to understand and approve and interrogate real change in the organisation. But hey – if you didn’t believe words could change the world, why would you be blogging? 😉

    I think you should acknowledge Bill Tate’s organisation shadow-side audit – and maybe link to his site?


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      Of course, I forgot to put link in beside those tables.
      I’ll do it now


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      “But hey – if you didn’t believe words could change the world, why would you be blogging? ;-)”
      Because it’s easier than not.
      And “words” are only the things printed on the pieces of paper. They’re blameless, just as paper is an inert medium useful for wrapping presents in, holding burgers or printing books on. It’s like how people believe I’m “anti-IT” because I have a go at the unthinking and misguided default thinking that IT will solve things. Not anti-IT, and not anti-words.
      Anti-default thinking instead.


  3. chariscroft says:

    But how do you know you’ve achieved something unless you have a bit of paper with words on to point at?????

    (No need to answer literally, tongue is FIRMLY in cheek)


  4. David Cohen says:

    Nice origami – where did you learn to fold 🙂


  5. GeeCee says:

    What do you suggest we Policy Officers do instead then?…sorry but I need this job!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s