Evolving Strategy in Complexity: For organizations who are overwhelmed, over-processing, and still need a coordinated plan to win

Evolving Strategy in Complexity: For organizations who are overwhelmed, over-processing, and still need a coordinated plan to win

When adrienne maree brown shared her invitation for “less prep, more presence” in Emergent Strategy, I was one of the people who really needed to hear that to unlearn some long-time habits that contributed to overwork (without much to show for it by way of outcomes). At the time, I was also recovering from a series of strategic planning entanglements that were so involved and took so long that they were probably no longer useful by the time they wrapped up.

As the world becomes increasingly complex, and our jobs, families, movements, and communities require more of us emotionally, managing the tension between planning and emergence gets both harder and more necessary. When pushed to our limits, it is so tempting to retire to our comfortable corners of this binary–either holding tightly to the illusion of a “perfect,” highly mapped-out plan that answers every question or going with the flow in pursuit of new opportunities as they present themselves.  

Standing on the shoulders of many strategy giants who have informed much of my thinking about approaches to evolving strategy, such as adrienne maree brownVu LeMaggie Potapchuk, and others, I’ve outlined some things I’ve been experimenting with to help balance planning and emergence to meet this moment.

Tending To How We “Be”

Evolving our strategy—if it’s one that is going to make any difference in the world—requires us to change ourselves in some way. Later in this piece, I share more about the strategy evolution process, planning, and analysis but no matter how thoughtful our process is, or how sharp our political analysis is, if we aren’t doing inner work to notice and address the messy and important “stuff” that change stirs up within us, we risk wasting a lot of time and energy. In developing and implementing strategy, we might be called on to take more risks by experimenting with an untested approach, engaging in principled struggle across race to work through conflict, moving from a culture of more rigid planning to emergence, and increasing our ability to hold complexity, holding tensions across binaries, building comfort with ambiguity and not knowing, etc. Taking these personal and collective leaps and building our capacity to do differently is supported by inner work: tending to our interior conditions as individuals and as a team as we develop and implement strategy.

Inner work questions supportive of advancing strategy may include: What new ways of being or relating are needed to get clarity on the organization’s direction? What is the risk—collectively and individually—that I/we need to take to make this evolved strategy happen, and how do we relate to any fear or anxiety related to that risk? Now that there is clarity on the organization’s direction, is this pathway forward aligned with my purpose? What must I grieve and let go of to make space for something new?

Much of the thinking below lies at the intersection of inner work and multiple ways of knowing. Accessing wisdom from multiple places—through bodily wisdom, ancestral wisdom, art, play, and connection to source—is a sister to inner work because these pathways give us the information we need to support inner and outer transformation.

  • Tapping into emotions. Inner work prepares us for the change ahead and to find internal stability regardless of how rapidly our external conditions change by helping us tap into inner stores of strength, capacity, resilience, and clarity to help us move through change. It’s important to make space for feeling-level data early on, rather than treating these signals as a nuisance or barrier to moving forward. For example, in the face of urgency and the hard work ahead, we might be tempted to bury grief, anger, or fear related to change or perhaps even ignore joy. Embracing inner work and multiple ways of knowing through this four emotions exercise can help bring light to these feelings as gifts rather than impediments to transformation.
  • Embodying change. Another example of how multiple ways of knowing support inner work is through engaging in an embodied collective practice. For example, a practice like forward stancecan help us reflect on the skills, shapes, movements, and groundedness we need to hold in our bodies to support organizational transformation. I’ve adapted a somatic practice called “stuck shapes” that Kate Johnson introduced to our team at Change Elemental to support organizations in preparing for change. In a strategy context, individuals are asked to create a shape with their bodies that communicates what it feels like to work in their organization right now. This is their “stuck shape.” After modeling their stuck shape, they then use their bodies to show what it looks like to move out of that stuck shape toward transformation. Viewers then describe what they are noticing in their colleagues’ shapes. Sometimes our bodies can find the pathway forward when we thought none existed, or can name and give language to the unspeakable thing.
  • Making music together. There is also a long global and movement history of using song as an inner work practice. In moments of stress, singing has the power to deepen our breath, regulate our heartbeats, and quiet anxious thoughts. Music is often passed down over time—connecting our work to a lineage of past movements and movement ancestors (see Card 5 of LANE’s Mixed Metaphor: A Liberatory Infrastructure Learning Deck as an example). Through song, and music making, we can experience both autonomy—our power as individuals to contribute to the whole—and unity: the harmony, clarity, and strength of our message when we work in interdependence.

Landing a Minimum Viable Process

“Strategic planning” conjures images of a formal, lengthy process with interviews, focus groups, board conversations, partner conversations, retreats, design teams, committee meetings, etc. These processes are often piled on top of keeping the train on the tracks and performing our daily jobs. A clunky and burdensome process can challenge our sustainability for the long-haul and doesn’t hold the nimbleness we need to navigate complexity in real-time. Some things I consider in finding the minimum viable routes to developing, evolving, and aligning strategy:

  • Confronting the “hardest thing” early on. In the face of competing priorities for our time and energy, we can become conflict-avoidant and may end up creating a long, convoluted planning process to avoid facing the difficult choice or hard conversation head-on. Avoidance can look like expanding a conversation or decision to more people in hopes that someone new will have the courage to name the elephant we’ve been ignoring. It can also look like endless data gathering to somehow make a hard choice easier. When deciding on a process, I like to ask, What is the hard thing we aren’t talking about? This could be a question that is hard to answer, a decision you’re avoiding, a conversation that needs to be had, or a conflict that needs to be managed. Then we can get clear on what’s keeping us from being able to address it right now and what additional process, data, or inner work is needed to do that. Avoiding this question risks creating unnecessary labor as a way to work around the hard thing, instead of through it, and could result in a planning process that goes too long without addressing the main challenges.  
  • Leading with a few ideas about potential strategic directions or pivots to test, instead of big, open-ended questions. If there is already an idea (or several) about how the organization’s strategy and the work might evolve or shift, start there. In my experience, asking broad open-ended questions and collecting a lot of data rarely leads to a shiny new idea about an organization’s strategic direction. Leaders are already building upon and processing existing data every day—data that comes from gut feeling, ancestral wisdom, learning from partners, and outcomes from your current work. They likely already have some idea about where things need to go. Instead of hoping that these ideas emerge organically through a data-gathering process, share them upfront. Once you have some ideas, you can then test them with key stakeholders to quickly identify areas of alignment and disagreement through a more efficient process. Instead of gathering data to support ideation or find new ideas, the data gathered tests the viability of current ideas, iterates on them, and makes space for new ideas. 
  • Designing a process that reflects the organization you’re evolving into. Pursuing a new strategy or evolving current strategy often requires shifts in organizational culture, decision-making, staffing, and organizational practice. You don’t need to wait until the end of the strategy process to start trying out new ways of being together. The planning process itself is an opportunity to experiment with new muscle-building and learn more about the gaps, strengths, and needs for a next evolution. For example, I worked with an organization that wanted to shift from highly centralized, top-down decision-making to distributed leadership where staff had more responsibility and relationships with external partners. Instead of leaving all the data collection and analysis responsibilities to the consulting team, staff got coaching and behind-the-scenes help to facilitate interviews and staff-wide processes on their own as part of an experiment in evolving the organization’s shared leadership and deepening external relationships.
  • Deciding who decides (and how). This isn’t a particularly novel idea, however as more organizations experiment with new power-sharing structures outside of formal hierarchy, clarity about decision-making becomes more important, as does having access to a variety of decision-making models to meet our needs. Ananda Valenzuela and the folks at Rooted in Vibrant Communities (RVC) have created some awesome resources on healthy decision-making. A few frameworks I’ve used include RVC’s advice process and Circle Forward’s approach to consent as an alternative to consensus. Asking ourselves, To whom are we accountable? should also drive decisions about who decides and how. Being explicit about power in our decision-making and how we are sharing, ceding, or building it together (including through principled struggle and generative conflict) can tighten and build an approach to strategy development that reflects our future vision and deepens accountability to directly impacted people, communities, partners, and movements.

Rooting in Political Analysis

Political analysis describes the relationship between actions, actors, systems, levers, local/national/global conditions, and power relationships that inhibit and advance our vision. I use “political analysis” because powerful movement strategy positioned to dismantle or shift systems towards equity and liberation is inherently political—i.e., not values neutral—and rooted in existing frameworks and analyses about the nature and distribution of power that upholds or uproots the status quo (check out this great example of political analysis from the NorthStar Network). Rooting in analysis together can look like: 

  • Getting clear on the “why.” One reason rooting in political analysis is so important is that many disagreements that emerge in strategy development don’t always exist at the level of strategy (i.e., what are we doing?), but more commonly occur at the level of analysis (i.e., why are we doing this?). Unaligned or unclear analysis becomes an issue in downstream decision-making and implementation. In one case, an organization quickly settled on a set of strategies: power building and community organizing, narrative change, and direct services to the most impacted communities. These approaches seemed clear, but they got stuck when it came to making decisions that would shift resources from one program to another or about parting ways with a particular partner. Within program teams tasked with making these decisions, they needed an aligned analysis (including shared language and concepts) to support effective dialogue, and generative conflict, and guide decision-making. 
  • Tapping into group wisdom.  In my experience, the most useful political analysis often weaves together several perspectives and analytical frameworks without being beholden to one particular ideology. As my colleague Mark Leach jokes, “If you hit every problem with the same ideology and the answer to everything is ‘capitalism’—good luck to you!” Even when we use the same language, we might mean radically different things leading to conflicting visions for how our strategy might evolve. Building a robust, multifaceted analysis requires that planning team members have at least some individual ideas of the frameworks, analyses, and ideologies that drive the work. They also need the capacity for generative tension, trust, and relationship agreements to support them in building toward alignment. Important questions to surface at this stage include: What are the different ideologies we hold among us? How do they reinforce each other or come into conflict with one another? How do we hold these tensions?  
  • Expanding our view. I’ve heard concerns from groups that if the analysis is too broad, and has too many tendrils, then decision-making and prioritization become harder, but I’ve found the opposite to be true: strong trees need big, wide-spreading roots! When we begin to make connections across oppressive systems and how they work together in local and global arenas, our particular “slice” of the work—given our organization’s identity, strengths, and resources—can become much clearer.  An expansive political analysis can empower staff outside of leadership to fully step into their role within the organizational strategy with greater clarity and ease even as conditions shift. For example, a reproductive justice group spent the bulk of their planning time aligning on analysis—they started broadly looking at global conditions down to their local community. They brought in discussions about misogyny, racism, anti-Blackness, transphobia, prison abolition, resource distribution across US geographies, etc.—whatever they could think of that impacted their work. Their political analysis made decisions about how and where to narrow their work fairly obvious and enabled them to quickly focus on their organization’s particular role within the broader ecosystem and strategies for advancing that role. They created a decision-making guide that helped discern what opportunities and partnerships no longer fit with their analysis and ecosystem role. As a result of clarity and alignment in their analysis, the staff was able to start work planning in a fairly decentralized way with limited needs for further group-wide coordination and discussion.
  • Asking a few, simple questions. My colleague Mark Leach and I created this worksheet to help groups clarify their analysis of the problem and solution through a series of short questions as an initial step in strategy development.  If you already have an aligned analysis to support your strategy work, you might also consider these other questions before beginning a strategy development process or as part of it:
    • Does our analysis need to shift based on what we’ve learned and experienced—new data and new conditions?
    • Even if elements of our strategy stay the same, does implementation need to shift based on our evolved analysis? 
    • Is there still a role for us in advancing this movement? 
    • Do we still need to exist or have we already accomplished what we set out to do or are we no longer adding anything truly needed in the ecosystem?

What Now, What Next?

The work ahead requires a lot of us and evolving and clarifying our strategy should further free us rather than weigh us down. Continuing to iterate and evolve strategy based on what we are learning supports us to pivot in real-time as external conditions shift. Stay tuned for our upcoming blog, where we will share more of our thinking about the relationship between learning and strategy. In the meantime, I welcome reflections, critique, and partnership in further developing these and other ideas to make this work more nimble, more powerful, and better able to skillfully meet the moment—within us, our organizations, and our movements. 

Natalie Bamdad (she/her/hers), joined Change Elemental in 2017. She is a queer and first-gen Arab-Iranian Jew, whose people are from Basra and Tehran. She is a DC-based facilitator and rabble-rouser working to strengthen leadership, organizations, and movement networks working towards racial equity and liberation of people and planet. At Change Elemental, Natalie supports racial equity transformation processes, governance and decision-making structures, practices, and strategy-setting to build a world where power and resources are shared in just ways. She has written about shared leadershipexperimentation in governance and decision-making, and the relationship between systems change and racial equity

originally published at Change Elemental

featured image: Flicker | Pradeep Sawlani

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