Making Sense of Strategy in an Uncertain World

Aug 25, 2016 | Leadership Insights (Articles) | 0 comments

Author: Susan Szpakowski

Strategy often fails because the analytic process can’t keep up with the emergent realities. For leaders to be effective strategists, they need to complement their analytic abilities with intuitive understandings.

Increasingly government and other leaders are realising that many of their best-intentioned plans, strategies, and efforts haven’t produced the desired results. In fact, many have produced the opposite. Especially in large, complex systems, by the time a study has been done and a strategy crafted, the whole situation has changed. Or top-down solutions alienate the people they are intended to benefit. “Helping agencies,” over controlling bosses, and imposed restructuring processes breed apathy and resentment among those who have been “done to,” and helpless frustration among the well-meaning agents of change.

So what does effective strategy look like in a complex, continually emergent world? How do we engage all the players involved without becoming paralyzed by endless process? How do we exercise decisive leadership within the context of the true collaboration and high levels of engagement needed to manage complexity? These are critical questions for our time. Part of the answer lies in our approach to planning. In highly complex, emergent systems we need to replace linear strategic planning with three-dimensional design thinking.

Christopher Alexander coined the term pattern language as a way of describing good design practices within a field of expertise. His own field is architecture, but the term has also been used in other domains, such as computer science and pedagogy. Alexander inventoried a set of universal patterns, based on examples from many cultures around the world, both ancient and new. As a researcher, his radical premise was that we all have an innate ability to distinguish “what gives life and beauty” as opposed to what has been created from a more arbitrary or relative intention – for example, with a primary focus on efficiency, fashion, or the architect’s self-expression.

Alexander maintains that “each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice.” (A Pattern Language, 1977) While Alexander remains a controversial figure, his ideas point towards the kind of fluency that is essential when working in complex, challenging environments. How do we design organizations, projects, and change processes that support life – that support and nourish people and their work over time? What are the patterns and solutions that can be used “a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice?” As the architects of social space, we ignore these patterns at our peril. Our efforts will fail to ignite passion, imagination, and commitment. It will be as if we are pushing our agenda uphill, rather than connecting with the life force that is already present.

Emergent design is defined by creative paradox – by a tension between freedom and contraint, chaos and structure. This is an age-old tension, and potential harmony, that is expressed in Taoist literature as well as the recent fields of social innovation and strategy. We could say that these “new” approaches to social design create “minimum structure” in order to avoid too much rigidity and harness the innate intelligence, creativity, and capacity for self-organizing and self-actualizing in people and groups. Too much planning, structure, and intervention will stifle adaptive capacity. Too little structure will leave a system vulnerable to the entropic forces of habit, conflicting self-interests, and lack of vision and direction. A good strategic design is elegant in its simplicity, with well-defined parameters, clarity of purpose and success criteria.

Plant Spiral © Eric Wüstenhagen – CC

Today’s uncertainty is not the simple kind of uncertainty, where we can wait for the game to play out according to well defined and widely accepted rules. No, it is radical uncertainty in which the rules, even the game itself, are transforming in surprising ways…. not only do we not know what the future holds, but we don’t know how to think about what the future might hold!

Glenda Eoyang Founder of the field of Human Systems Dynamics (HSD).

Such a design also provides a way to discern the needs of the future by reaching deeply into the evolving patterns of the present, rather than simply projecting the assumptions and lessons of the past. The learning and data gathered in the past may be useful but will also have diminishing relevance in a rapidly changing environment. Also, these learnings will no longer hold the fresh energy needed to engage current players in robust forward movement. The relatively recent fields of Complexity Science, Theory U, and Chaordic Design all provide frameworks of “just enough” structure. When you design a process using one of these frameworks, you may not know where you will end up, but you do know why you are embarking on this project, what you hope to achieve, and the general direction you are headed. Then you set out on a journey and build the road as you walk it, staying flexible and responsive to the changing terrain along the way.Proceeding on such a journey begins by gaining an understanding of the territory – the dynamics and patterns within a system. This understanding will be informed by available data and analysis, but in complex systems it is impossible to map all the interconnected, changing variables at play. To complement this analytical understanding, the adaptive leader is also immersed in the system with other parts of his or her neurological system (other ways of perceiving and knowing) switched on, so that an intuitive way of knowing the whole is also activated. The inner capacity of “knowing the whole” supports the outer practices of emergent strategy and action. In other words, three-dimensional design and strategy calls for three dimensional leadership

The most effective strategy is often the strategy that spreads leadership, that works in the background to create culture shifts and tipping points, and that increases the overall intelligence and resilience of teams, organizations, and communities.

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Those who can’t or won’t see patterns are doomed to repeat the past. Ignore patterns and yesterday’s decisions become tomorrow’s destiny.

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Patterns, not problems, will ruin your business.

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