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Photo of murmuration (birds flying together)

Our clients work in complexity – that is, in unpredictable environments with networks of organizations at the intersections of issues and identities where there are multiple leverage points for change and where the context changes quickly. Our clients need to adapt their strategies and plans rapidly as conditions shift. They need to adjust their strategies to complement their networks’ strategies. They also need a north star to know where they are heading (even if the landscape and conditions prevent going in a straight line!) as they confront the unknown and the unexpected, and navigate their differences toward their common goal.

Traditional strategic planning falls short in this context; mid-range and short-term objectives become obsolete as conditions shift, partners change their strategies, and assumptions about what will lead to results fail. Here we share our thinking on being strategic and nimble when we aren’t in control. It’s what we’ve seen work for our clients so far, and we anticipate continuing to build on this as we keep learning together.

4 Essential Elements for Strategizing in Complexity

Strategy and planning in complexity is a way for organizations to be forward thinking, act in coordinated and aligned ways, and remain nimble to pivot when necessary given their complex reality. Through our experiences with clients and partners, we’ve identified four elements of successful processes for strategy and planning in complexity.

1. Unique Design

We are experimenting with different tools, techniques, and methods for strategizing and planning in complexity. There is not one way of doing it that works for all organizations. Each organization needs a unique process that meets it where it is and catalyzes the next strategic breakthrough. However, there is a common set of questions we ask during the design phase to get to a unique design including:

  • What elements of your work are most complex? When does past experience fail to provide guidance about what to do next? What are the challenges, tensions, or questions you face in navigating this complexity?
  • What is already working for you to nimbly adapt your strategy and plans while following a north star? What else needs to be put in place during and as a result of strategic thinking and planning that takes complexity into account?
  • What is the appropriate engagement of board, staff, affiliates, allies, individuals (e.g., members, donors, leaders, “free-radicals”), and others to support decision-making and buy-in?

2. Strategic Directions (not destinations)

Like traditional strategic planning processes, strategic thinking in complexity seeks to clarify an organization’s core purpose (why does your organization exist?) and vision (compelling view of how the world will be if the organization, along with others, achieved it’s purpose). But unlike traditional strategic planning processes where specific, long-term goals are specified in measurable detail (like destinations on a map with pre-defined, exact and measurable coordinates), strategy in complexity identifies strategic directions—where we are walking, with purpose, to get to our vision. 

Strategic directions in complexity are often multiple, can sometimes appear to be going in different directions and are pursued through experimentation and continual feedback, learning and mid-course corrections. Taken together, the combined directions serve as a north star to guide the organization. 

Like traditional strategic planning, strategy in complexity also defines core strategies (the organization’s unique contribution to a vision given its positioning and strengths). But unlike traditional strategic planning, core strategies in complexity take into account a deep inquiry of the larger system they are trying to influence, including a range of systems analytics: what are the factors impacting this system, what are the patterns or trends changing the system, what are the historic and current causes of inequity, and where are there opportunities to accelerate change? Organizations also map the movement players: who are the allies and opposition, how do they contribute to the movement, where are there gaps, and what are the power dynamics?

Finally, in MAG’s approach to strategy in complexity, organizations use inner work, multiple ways of knowing (experiential knowledge, human-centered design processes, scenarios, among other methods) and a deep equity perspective to challenge existing assumptions about what is needed and create space for new thinking about the future.

Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino, y nada más;
caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante, no hay camino,
sino estelas en la mar.

Antonio Machado, Extracto de Proverbios y Cantares (XXIX)

Wanderer, your footsteps are
the path, and nothing else;
wanderer, there is no path,
the path is made by walking.
Walking makes the path,
and on glancing back
one sees the path
that will never trod again.
Wanderer, there is no path—
Just waves in the sea.

Translation via Wikiquote

3. Alignment Mechanisms

Having a direction(s) isn’t enough; you still need everyone to work together to advance the new direction. Strategy in complexity develops mechanisms to coordinate and motivate people, such as:

  • Written and visual guides (not plans). Many of our clients are abandoning lengthy written plans in favor of identifying guideposts or big, hairy, audacious goals (BHAGs) to guide long-term impact. They are also experimenting with simple rules, guiding principles, or decision-making criteria to guide near-term actions.
  • Institutional leadership. They share leadership, allocate more time for leadership conversations, and support multiple leaders to navigate complexity.  They create practices for organizational values to drive operations, programs, and external relations.
  • Continuous learning. They create flexible cultures, structures, and processes to foster experimentation, action learning, and constant feedback loops to understand what is happening, why, and how to refine what they are doing.  This invariably requires developing new ways to listen from the margins of the system and to surface and engage constructively in conflict.

4. Commitment

Traditional strategic planning decisions, while data-driven, may lead to compromise, false agreement, or a laundry list of everyone’s individual interests. Strategy in complexity shifts the group dynamics such that people put the group’s (organization’s and ecosystem’s) success first in making decisions. This means recognizing the multiple hats we wear that represent individual, organizational, and network or movement’s self-interest and holding these appropriately in the right spaces. This requires negotiating with intention the inevitable tension points between all of these hats. It can be very difficult to do, particularly given power imbalances and equity issues, but when done successfully it generates better decisions that people are committed to following through on.

At MAG we’re working with clients to explore a range of techniques to generate commitment. We talk directly about power and how we build it throughout the system and leverage it in positive ways toward shared goals. We consider how an organization and its context have evolved, what strengths from the past make sense to continue, what needs to be let go to grow into the future, and how to manage the change intentionally. We support courageous conversations about impact, equity, and shifting roles and responsibilities. Finally, we surface and mediate submerged conflict, help transition those that cannot commit to other positions or ways of being, and rebuild team structures and processes.

Traditional strategic planning results in a roadmap with clear, predictable steps to get from point A to point B. Strategy and planning in complexity, in addition to focusing on “directions, not destinations” also engages a set of stakeholders who co-determine high-level strategic directions, who are committed to the group’s success and can continually make decisions that put the group first, and who make the cultural, structural and procedural changes needed to innovate and rapidly adapt in a complex environment.

In complexity, the direction is clear, but the destination and the path will be made as you walk it.

Interested in learning more about planning, strategizing, and leading in complexity?

There is much to learn and share about working in complexity! In past blogs we’ve provided an overview of complexity theory, reviewed the role of leaders in complex systems change, discussed how movement networks are strategizing differently, and shared a case story of the creation of an actionable program strategy that could flex in the face of complexity. Check these out and let us know what you think!

Banner photo credit: Adam | CC By 2.0

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