In 1999, as part of its annual strategic planning process, the Eugene (Ore.) Water and Electric Board (EWEB) adopted a planning model that was similar in some respects to traditional approaches: It considered the utility's future; communication; organizational fitness; and action plans. However, it differed in one significant way: It was based on the principles of “complexity science,” which suggest that, among other things, organizations function more like living organisms than machines.

The concept of “organizational fitness,” a term referring to an organization's ability to sustain itself and thrive in a changing environment, is at the heart of the process. EWEB judged its fitness by an assessment of its mission, vision and values.

Most traditional organizational planning models divide activities and markets into discrete components using strength/weakness/opportunity/threat analyses or other similar processes. Instead of using that approach, EWEB considered the whole organization in the context of its markets; rather than simply trying to dissect its situation, the utility sought to discern patterns.

Those patterns are not always readily apparent, and consequently, it becomes essential to observe and sense the whole organization in action and in real time. To do that, EWEB staffers engaged in in-depth discussions about the themes of organizational fitness, using stories and anecdotes more often than spreadsheets. The approach can appear to be disorganized, but it does lead to a fuller shared understanding that clarifies the details (such as specific goals, strategies and tactics) of any further organizational planning effort.

EWEB's strategic planning team, consisting of executive managers and eight staff members, held a series of meetings and consulted with EWEB's board at pivotal stages. Once the strategic plan was drafted, management met with employees at all levels of the utility to communicate the plan, obtain feedback and determine how it connected with “business as usual.”

EWEB is using a two-pronged approach to make sure the plan is implemented. First, the strategic planning group meets quarterly to discuss what is happening internally and externally that could affect the utility's fitness. Second, EWEB plans to implement Connections software from Cleveland, Ohio-based Cardwell Group to map organizational relationships and track plan results.

Since its planning process, the utility has seen some positive results:

  • Communication between the executive management team and the board of directors has strengthened considerably;

  • The time required to complete EWEB's annual budget has been cut in half; and

  • Participants report that the planning process is much less bureaucratic than traditional approaches.

  • This article was written by Randy Berggren, EWEB general manager, and Ken O'Brien, director of BECKstrategies, R.W. Beck, Seattle.