Living Strategies: Bringing Innovation To Life

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Guiding Your Organization Through The Rugged Landscape Ahead

By Arian Ward of Community Frontiers

As we all know well, the world has changed dramatically since the times when traditional strategic planning first became the foundation on which organizations of all types are based. The landscape on which organizations operated then was relatively predictable, stable, and homogenous. Now it is filled with uncertainty, rapid change, and increasingly diverse players and dynamics. These players not only think and act differently than they used to; they keep changing their minds about what they want and expect from the world around them.

Yet given this dizzying environment in which organizations find themselves, why do so many keep doing strategic planning as if it were still 1960? And even if they have an inspired vision of who they want to be based on their changing environment, how do they create the bridge between their aspirations and the day-to-day operations that members actually experience as the organization?

What organizations need is strategy and a process for creating it that flexes, adapts, and evolves to still make sense in this complex environment, while keeping the organization seamlessly aligned with these strategic dynamics. In other words, they need a “living strategy!”
In a nutshell, living strategy is:

* the dynamic story of the shared aspirations, strategic direction, and strategic outcomes of the organization and the community it supports,
* emerging and continuously evolving
* from the collective knowledge of the community and
* from an expanding network of ongoing strategic conversations among all members of the community around the questions that matter most to them,
* all seamlessly interwoven into the “fabric” of the current organization through a continuous process of reflection and renewal.
One of the fundamental concepts of living strategy—both in terms of its content and of the evolving process itself is that in a dynamic, complex environment like what organizations face today, the future can’t be “planned.” Instead, we want the strategy process to come alive through discovering and exploring questions that really matter—through collaborative dialogue, thinking together, and sharing stories among all stakeholders, not just among a select group of leaders and experts.

Living Strategy recognizes that organizations and their environment are much more like living organisms within a complex ecological system than they are like mechanisms within a human-designed and controlled system. After all, they are made up of people within a world of many other people. What could be more natural, more unpredictable, and more “alive” than people with all our frailties, moods, and dreams? Therefore, Living Strategy, as we practice it, is based on the sciences and tools related to living systems, particularly those that can be applied to organizations as living systems. These include complexity science, life science, social science, community development, dialogue, storytelling, and organic approaches to knowledge and learning.

To help further clarify what we mean by Living Strategy, the following tables offer some distinctions between traditional strategic planning and Living Strategy and between traditional enterprise management and a living systems approach to enterprise management we call a “sense and respond system.” Finally, we leave you with a few tips on how any organization can begin to develop a Living Strategy approach to the future.

Table 1: Living Strategy Compared to Traditional Strategic Planning

Strategic Planning Living Strategy

Assumes you can predict the future and develop successful plans based on those predictions Consists of strategic thinking, questions, dialogue, and stories; assumes you can’t predict the future, but you can collectively prepare for what might emerge and therefore, successfully respond to it.

”The only kind of strategy that makes sense in the face of unpredictable change is a strategy to become adaptive…. Planned responses do not work.”

Rigidly scheduled and time-bound; e.g., every 1-2 years, looking out 3-5 years into the future.

Assumes that strategy needs to be newly developed, deployed, and implemented each time you do strategic planning.

“Strategy as Inquiry” – ongoing and dynamic, designed to change whenever change is indicated.

Produces more stable strategic direction (unless the environment changes drastically), because it only changes when it needs to, not when the calendar says it’s time to generate a new plan.

Planning is done by a select group of leaders and “experts” within a rigid, hierarchical organization that uses strategy as a political tool to maintain the status quo or jockey for more power, prestige, and resources. After a few face-to-face group interactions, a small number of individuals develop the “final” strategic plan. This select group uses a linear planning process, producing a static text document that is meant to serve as the complete expression of the organization’s strategic direction.

Living Strategy continuously emerges out of ongoing, interwoven:
• individual reflection and work
• group face-to-face and virtual interactions and collaborations
• dialogue across the whole community of organizational stakeholders

It “lives” as compelling stories, images, questions, and expressions of the community’s aspirations, priorities, and inquiries into the future. It acknowledges that the organization and its environment form an interconnected system, where strategy serves to focus and align the interactions of the whole system toward a future collectively envisioned and evolved by those stakeholders.

Textual expressions of the strategy are considered to be “snapshots” of the organization’s strategy at a given point in time. Graphics, such as those produced by a graphic recorder , illustrate and bring to life the textual expressions of strategy.

Like an all-knowing, all-powerful patriarch of old, the organization assumes responsibility for the future of its members and other stakeholders. Yet much of the organization’s strategy for dealing with the future is its planned response to external forces which it doesn’t really understand and over which it has little control. Our society’s revered values of democracy and free speech get lip service, at best, even in many organizations who call themselves “member organizations.” “The law of requisite variety” – If a system is to be able to adapt to its external environment, it must incorporate as much or more variety than its environment.

Living Strategy emerges from and supports the organization’s community. This community includes anyone who may have a stake in the outcome of the enterprise, even if they don’t yet know they may have a stake (such as potential new members or markets).

The diversity, intelligence, and passion of the entire community is tapped to creatively seize or make opportunities to co-create its own future, rather than waiting to let it happen to them.

Strategic planning is mainly an academic exercise with little relevance to the daily work of the enterprise, as people must refer to a “cheat-sheet,” wall chart, or web page to even remember this year’s plan. Everyone in the organization lives strategy as a natural part of their work and relationship with the organization. Each person has a deep understanding of Living Strategy, in their own words but with the same shared meaning. They keep “one foot in the present and one foot in the future.”
Table 2: Traditional approach to enterprise management compared to a living systems-based approach – what we call a “sense and respond system’, since that is how living organisms survive and thrive within their environment, by sensing the environment and responding appropriately to what they sense.

Traditional Approach to Enterprise Management
Plan, control, change

The complement to a “strategic planning mindset” is that if you plan everything well enough you can then control everything and everyone in the organization according to the plan.

Mechanistic approach which relies on traditional management processes and information systems to find out what people need to know about the environment, make centralized decisions about what they should do with this business intelligence, and then inform and manage them to implement these decisions. Traditional research methods are used for intelligence gathering and environmental scanning.

Measurements give us the ability to plan and control. If something is within our acceptable measurement range, it’s working fine; if not, we either have to make people improve their performance or we need to change the plan.

Sense & Respond System
Understand, influence, evolve

The organization is an organic, “whole system” of interconnected, interdependent individuals, informal groups, and formal organizations, who can’t be predicted and controlled, but they can be understood to a sufficient extent to influence their behavior. By understanding their mindsets, needs, and behaviors, we can try to design a whole system based on our understanding that is flexible and adaptable enough to accommodate the changes and uncertainties inherent in living systems, and then continuously evolve the design based on our observations of the system in action.
The nervous system of the organization is an interconnected, knowledge and trust-based, communication system, consisting of:
• Sensing – supplements traditional information gathering by tapping into the collective intelligence of all stakeholders within the system – their existing knowledge + their real-time awareness of significant events, ideas, trends, and needs in the environment. The intelligence they provide is far richer than traditional research surveys and other intelligence gathering methods, since it doesn’t have a built-in time delay or filter, plus they can provide the context around the data such as the stories and thought processes behind their answers – what turns the data into meaningful information.
• Sensemaking – A “triage process” that enables the enterprise to determine the best course of action to take for a given sensory input. Not another mechanistic gatekeeper that impedes rapid decision making and response, but an organic process, driven by a set of simple rules and roles, that builds the intelligence into the whole system that enables this decision making – what turns the information into useful knowledge and surfaces the rich underlying patterns and themes that are not evident when looking at independent data streams.
• Response – The organizational capability to quickly respond to sensory inputs that warrant an organizational response, at the point in the organization where the response will be most effective. This means this part of the organization must already have access to the knowledge and the necessary authority and responsibility to respond appropriately – what turns the knowledge into effective action. This is the essence of the agile organization and the intelligent organization.

Like with Living Strategy, ongoing dialogue forms the heart of this “living system.” This is because rich, meaningful dialogue tends to create trust-based relationships and shared knowledge – two of the most critical factors in the success of any organization. Uninformed dialogue rarely produces much value for anyone, so the dialogue needs to be linked to the enterprise’s information and measurement systems and to decision-making elements of the sense-and-respond system. Measurement is about informing this dialogue to make it more meaningful and resultant decisions more effective, not about making sure everyone “makes their numbers.” Measurement also helps us understand the system better so we can continue to evolve its design and improve the likelihood of getting what we want from our actions by clarifying what in the system drives what outcomes.

The sense-and-respond system uses systems thinking and other whole-systems tools to help understand and guide the enterprise. But systems tools can be applied just as mechanically as any other tool. For that reason, any use of a tool should be accompanied by meaningful dialogue both before it’s used, to provide the context for what we’d like to learn from using the tool, and after it’s used, to gain deeper, shared insights around the questions that prompted its use. This cycling between dialogue and focused, tool-supported action is characteristic of an effective sense-and-respond system.
How Can You Apply These Concepts To Your Organization?

1. Living Strategy/Sense & Respond are about following these principles, not about following a specific recipe or methodology. You can customize your approach to fit your needs and culture any way you wish, as long as you follow these principles. You only need to do just enough to gain a shared understanding of what the future holds and what kind of future you want for your organization and the communities, subject areas, products, and services it supports, as well as a reasonable approximation of how best to navigate the organization toward that desired future (assuming you can make mid-course corrections as you learn more about what you’re facing).

2. Get your senior leadership – paid and volunteer, thinking and talking strategically – in deep, meaningful dialogue , not in shallow discussions or political debates. Focus on the real meaning of the content, not on the format or process. Take the wordsmithing offline. World Cafés are an excellent way to help you do this because they are based on many of the same living systems principles we are relating here.

3. Invite diversity and inclusion, but be prepared for what might emerge when you do. The best way to do this is get out and engage your key stakeholders. Focus on listening to them, not telling them. Then harvest the wisdom that emerges, such as the most important questions, issues, and opportunities for the organization to be paying attention to. Again, World Cafés are an excellent means of engaging your stakeholders around these questions that really matter to them.

4. Focus the time and attention of your senior leadership and other key staff on these important strategic questions. You don’t have to wait to meet face-to-face to do this. You can continue your strategic dialogue between leadership meetings with email, conference calls, and online document libraries, discussion boards, and other virtual interaction tools.

5. Balance stability with flexibility. Abandon the calendar as the driver of your strategy. Instead, let significant events and information become the triggers of your strategic dialogue and changes in direction. You don’t have to change your strategy every time you review it, but you also need to be flexible enough to change it when your environment indicates its time to do so.

6. Think and work with your enterprise as a whole system. ”The elements of a living system can be understood only in relationship to the dynamics of the whole.” There are many systems tools to help you do this , but which tool you use isn’t what’s important. It’s that you are somehow able to create and engage around a shared understanding of the whole enterprise, especially how its different elements relate to each other and their environment. You don’t have to do this all at once or even get it perfect, since there is no such thing as “perfect” in a living system. You can start with small, simple steps like drawing and talking about how different elements of the enterprise relate to each other, and then evolve this whole systems view gradually through a series of similar dialogues with other stakeholders.

7. Evolve an organizational culture that supports this new way of thinking and behaving. Introducing dialogue as one of your primary means of communication (as mentioned above) is a good start in this direction. To help develop a living systems mindset, begin to introduce a living systems-based language to replace the mechanistic language organizations have been using since the industrial revolution. Examples of more organic terms that can be substituted for some of the more widely used mechanistic terms:

Use Instead of Use Instead of
Elements, aspects Components, parts Sensing Information gathering
System, cycle Process Sensemaking Information processing, analysis
Principles & Guidelines Policies & Procedures People, Communities Human resources, Constituencies
Direction setting Planning Leading, coaching Managing
Guiding, navigating Measuring, controlling Cultural evolution Change management

8. Accept the reality that we can’t predict the future nor can we plan and control the enterprise according to our predictions using simple linear processes and hierarchical structures. In the non-linear, dynamic system or environment in which we all exist, we can only anticipate what is most likely to happen through continuous feedback, inquiry, and learning, and thus be prepared to respond collaboratively, quickly and intelligently to whatever emerges from the system. This is often more of a personal evolution than an organizational one, since we all have an inherent desire to control the environment around us. Giving up this illusion of control and embracing the unlimited possibilities of the unknown can be very freeing, as we come to feel more comfortable with the increasing levels of uncertainty around us. Even better, it can give us more control over this uncertainty, since we now have the power to serendipitously recognize and act on opportunities that we might have ignored previously since they didn’t fit our “plans.” We can co-create our own future, rather than letting it happen to us.

Note: These are excerpts from a series of articles on Living Strategy published in the Journal of Association Leadership, the flagship journal of the association industry. If you would like the complete text of these articles, please contact Arian Ward – arianatcommunityfrontiersdotcom.

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