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Several years ago MAG took everything we “knew” about strategic planning and put it aside. We started an inquiry with our clients and learning lab participants.

What might it look like to have strategic thinking throughout our organizations and networks that: is responsive to the complex and rapidly changing environment, meets the scale of the issues, encourages alignment with the larger ecosystem, and leaves both organizations and networks stronger?

We remain in this inquiry and share a few observations that we hope will stimulate conversation about strategy at the nexus of organizations and networks.

People who care about the redistribution of power, privilege and resources toward a more just world recognize that no organization acting alone has the power to make this transformative redistribution happen at scale. Many are catalyzing networks and dedicating time to creating collaborative solutions. Yet all too often it can feel like making time for networks is in competition with organizational goals and priorities. The unspoken fear is that for networks to be strong, our organizations will become weak. Thus triggering very real, practical concerns over turf, credit, funding and visibility.

Yet some leaders (see the Network Leadership Innovation Lab) reject the idea of a zero sum game. Instead, they see networks as an opportunity to align their work with others to accomplish larger shared goals. They find strategies that make both their organizations and networks stronger together.

But to do this, they need a different approach to planning at both the organizational and network levels. Here’s what we’ve observed about commonalities across approaches that are working:

  • Map the Movement. Develop approaches to build and constantly adapt a shared understanding of the larger movement dynamics, trends, opportunities, challenges, opposition and power dynamics. To make a big impact, see the movement ecosystem and its players and know what to leverage and what to transform. 
  • Align around ultimate impact. What ultimate impact are the participating organizations/leaders hoping to achieve through this network? It should be big and ambitious enough to inspire active and ongoing engagement while also central to participating organizations’ missions. 
  • Identify and value the power and strength of individual organizations. Networks rely on and build from members’ capacity. It’s critical to value members’ contributions and the different forms of power they build (grassroots, policy, electoral, grasstops, etc). Reach out across traditional divides. Making space for different ways of knowing, learning and working allows networks to benefit from all the members’ diversity rather than have each compete for dominance. This also means constantly seeking out opportunities to help individual organizations grow while advancing network goals. 
  • Focus on values and culture. It’s the glue that holds networks together – more than structures or rules (which must be flexible to meet the emerging work). Articulate why and how you do the work together and then live into those values. It’s especially important to articulate the network’s relationship to a larger movement, central beliefs informing the network, and its commitments on issues of power and privilege. Also important is creating a set of agreements or operating principles to guide how the work is done – i.e. decision making, credit sharing, resourcing the work, transparency/internal communications, etc. How you do the work determines the quality of the end result and the depth of power and alignment built for future efforts. Remembering that the network’s culture will not mirror all the member organizations’ ways of working is also key. And, learning to navigate these differences is essential to success and requires intentionality. See the Coalition for Abortion Access and Reproductive Equity’s (CAARE) story for an example of how one network approached this work.  
  • Be iterative and flexible. Networks need just enough agreement around short term goals and strategies to keep the network together and effective and not so much that it becomes rigid and myopic. Rely on experimentation, generative spaces and testing of ideas. Create constant feedback loops with members, throughout the network and with the larger movement and allies. Allow things that gather energy and make progress to grow and things that don’t to fade away. 
  • Empower small groups to create their own pieces of strategy, experiment, monitor impact, gather feedback and adjust. Create teams when there is a critical mass of interest to explore a topic/approach/idea. Not all organizations have to agree to participate in everything (actually expecting that will kill off creativity and agility of the network and make it very difficult for participating groups). Don’t be afraid to start, stop or adjust teams — nothing should be permanent. Organizations lead or participate in the teams or subgroups that align closest with their own strengths and internal goals. 
  • Support leadership at all levels to see the whole picture and be connected to it while also having responsibility for their pieces. Consciously build opportunities for leaders to thrive, grow and take action.  
  • Start where you are, not where you think you should be. Build relationships and trust intentionally and by doing the work together – trust building is essential and never ends. Appreciate small wins, allow next steps to be revealed, applaud leadership, fail forward. Participating organizations have to make time to be present, build relationships, and learn from the work. For organizations and leaders, this work has to be central and not an add on.

As a network’s strategy develops, individual organizations adjust their strategy to leverage internal resources for shared network goals. This means internally prioritizing the goals they share with the network or stepping back network engagement (at least for a time) to make room for other organizations and leaders who are better positioned. Similarly, as organizations evolve their understanding of the work to be done, the network will also have to adjust. And often the network must uncover ways to help its members increase their visibility and resources so they can continue their vital work. Rather than in competition, strategy at the organizational and network levels must be an ongoing process of co-creation that is iterative and interconnected.

Banner photo credit: Jennifer Morrow | CC BY 2.0

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