One Activity for Developing Meaningful Strategy

Most strategic planning sessions in which I have participated always seemed to lack substance.  It was as though we all knew the results of the session would be meaningless but we participated anyway.  Strategy via compliance.

For strategy to be meaningful, it cannot be created in one session.  It requires time, openness, conversations and iterations.

Recently, my faith in strategic planning was restored when I participated in a session facilitated by Mark Cabaj for The Skills Society.  Here’s what we did.

We read Getting to Maybe.  A treatise packed with concepts, ideas and stories that provide insight into how social innovation can occur.  In particular,  we focused on the Adaptive Cycle (chapter three). Please read the book for a more complete explanation and an excellent illustrating example.  

Essentially, any initiative, program or activity needs to pass through the four stages of the Adaptive Cycle to ensure organizational resilience.  Organizations become vulnerable when they have too many initiatives ‘stuck’ in any given stage for too long. Stages of the Adaptive Cycle include:

  • Release:  organizations make the choice to end certain activities, initiatives or programs.  Inevitably, ending a program can cause strife but it also releases precious resources that can be re-allocated to new ideas or approaches.
  • Re-organization/Exploration:  organizations enter a highly creative stage generating many ideas all competing for the newly released yet finite resources.  Priorities emerge and the released resources converge on the ‘best’ ideas.
    • TRAP:    Failing to allocate the initial ‘investment’ of resources to give a ‘best’ ideas a chance at success.  ‘Everything gets funded but nothing gets accomplished’
  • Exploitation/Development:  organizations marshal additional necessary resources to move the idea from conception to reality. ‘Taking the implementation plunge!’
  • Conservation/Maturity:  organizations identify and codify best practices into polices or procedures.  All the hard work  to bring an innovative idea to life should be producing the change we were seeking.
    • TRAP:  Failing to identify when it is necessary to release resources so they may be reallocated.    ‘It’s the way we’ve always done it”

Then Mark lead us through an insightful activity in which we broke into small groups and plotted Skills Society programs, initiatives, and projects on the Adaptive Cycle. As a larger group we acknowledged this was the first conversation of many and nothing we did in the session would result in final decisions, freeing us from the obligation to have a polished strategic plan when we finished.  This allowed for a thorough exploration of divergent and convergent opinions.

Next, we plotted where we thought the same initiatives would be on the Adaptive Cycle in three years.  This conversation, when conducted with openness and generosity, is where thoughts and opinions about the future of the organization begin to organize into patterns and themes.  It is where fuzziness starts to give way to a clearer path forward.

I am looking forward to the next steps.