Tag: adaptive strategy

business

Strategy: Myths, fantasies, and reality

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A defining feature of sustained excellence in any enterprise is a good strategy — a vision and plan linked to the delivery of something of value, consistently. One of the big reasons many organizations fail to thrive is not just that they that have the wrong strategy, but that they don’t have one at all (but think they do). 

Strategy is all about perception.

Whether you think you have one or not is partly perceptive. Whether you are delivering a strategy in practice or not is also a matter of perception. Why? Because strategy is what links what you build your organization for, what you drive it toward, and what you actually achieve. Lots of organizations achieve positive results by happenstance (being at the right place at the right time). That kind of luck can happen to anyone, but it hardly constitutes a strategy.

Also, statements of intent are great for creating the perception of strategy because one can always say they are working toward something in the abstract, but without a clear sense of how intentions are connected to actions and those actions connected to outcomes, there really isn’t a strategy.

Do you have a strategy?

The best example of this is in the entertaining and instructive illustrative book ‘I Have a Strategy (No You Don’t)‘, Howell J. Malham Jr literally illustrates the problems that beset conversations about strategy as it chronicles two characters (Larry and Gary) talking about the subject and busting the myths associated with what strategy is and is not. One exchange between the two goes like this:

Larry: “Hey Gary, I was working a strategy to put a cookie back in a cookie jar but I tripped and fell and the cookie flew into my mouth instead. Good strategy, huh?

Gary: “That’s not a strategy. That’s a happy accident, Larry

The entire book is like this. One misconception after another is clarified through one character using the term strategy to mean something other than what it really is. These misconceptions, misuses, and mistakes with the concept of strategy may be why it is so poorly done in practice.

Malham’s work is my favourite on strategy because it encapsulates so many of the real-world conversations I witness (and have been a part of) for years with colleagues and clients alike. Too much conversation on strategy is about things that are not really about strategy at all like wishes, needs, or opportunities.

This isn’t to suggest that all outcomes are planned or connected to a strategy, but the absence of a strategy means you’re operating at the whim of chance, circumstance, and opportunism. This is hardly the stuff of inspiration and isn’t sustainable. Strategy is about connecting purpose, plans, execution, and delivery. Malham defines a strategy as having the following properties:

1. It has an intended purpose;
2. There is a plan;
3. There is a sequence of actions (interdependent events);
4. It leads toward a distinct, measurable goal

When combined with evaluation, organizations build a narrative and understanding of not only whether a strategy leads toward a goal, but what actions make a difference (and to what degree), what aspects of a plan fit and didn’t fit, and what outcomes emerge from the efforts (including those that were unintended).

A look at much of the discourse on strategy finds that many organizations not only don’t have strategic plans, they don’t even have plans.

Words and action

One of the biggest problems with “capital ‘S’ Strategy” (the kind espoused in management science) is that it is filled with jargon and, ironically, contributes greatly to the very lack of strategic thinking that it seeks to inspire. It’s one of the reasons I like Malham’s book: it cuts through the jargon. I used to work with a senior leader who used all the language of strategy in talks, presentations, and writing but was wholly incapable or unwilling to commit to a strategic direction when it came to discussing plans and actions for their organization.

Furthermore, it is only marginally useful if you develop a strategy and then don’t bother to evaluate it to see what happened, how, and to what effect. Without the action tied to strategy, it is no better than a wish list and probably no more useful than a New Years Resolution.

Those plans and linking them to action is why design is such an important — and sadly, highly neglected — part of strategy development. Design is that process of shifting how we see problems, explore possibilities, and create pathways that lead to solutions. Design is not theoretical, it is practical and without design doing design thinking is impotent.

Two A’s of Strategy: Adaptation vs Arbitrary

The mistake for organizations working in zones of high complexity (which is increasingly most of those working with human services) is assuming that strategy needs to be locked in place and executed blindly to be effective. Strategy is developed in and for a context and if that situation changes, the strategy needs to change, too. This isn’t about throwing it out but adapting.

Adaptive strategy is a means of innovating responsibly, but can also be a trap if those adaptations need to be built on data and experience, not spurious conclusions. Arbitrary decisions is what often is at the root of bad (or no) strategy.

Roger Martin is one of the brightest minds on strategy and has called out what he sees as sloppy use of the term adaptive strategy as a stand-in for arbitrary decision-making going so far as to call it a ‘cop-out’. One of the biggest problems is that strategy is often not viewed in systems terms, as part of an interconnected set of plans, actions, and evaluations made simultaneously, not sequentially.

Good strategy is not a set of steps, but a set of cascading choices that influence the operations and outcomes simultaneously. Strategy is also about being active, not passive, about what it means to design and create an organization.

Grasping strategy for what it is, not what we imagine it to be, can be a key factor in shaping not only what you do, but how well you do it. Having the kind of conversations like those in Howell J. Malham’s book is a means to get things moving. Taking action on those things is another.

 

Image credit: Photo by Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash

psychologysystems thinking

Smart goals or better systems?

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If you’re working toward some sort of collective goals — as an organization, network or even as an individual — you’ve most likely been asked to use SMART goal setting to frame your task. While SMART is a popular tool for management consultants and scholars, does it make sense when you’re looking to make inroads on complex, unique or highly volatile problems or is the answer in the systems we create to advance goals in the first place?  

Goal setting is nearly everywhere.

Globally we had the UN-backed Millennium Development Goals and now have the Sustainable Development Goals and a look at the missions and visions of most corporations, non-profits, government departments and universities and you will see language that is framed in terms of goals, either explicitly or implicitly.

A goal for this purposes is:

goal |ɡōl| noun:  the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result the destination of a journey

Goal setting is the process of determining what it is that you seek to achieve and usually combined with mapping some form of strategy to achieve the goal. Goals can be challenging on their own when a single person is determining what it is that they want, need or feel compelled to do, even more so when aggregated to the level of the organization or a network.

How do you keep people focused on the same thing?

A look at the literature finds a visible presence of one approach: setting SMART goals. SMART goals reflect an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound (or Timely in some examples). The origin of SMART has been traced back to an article in the 1981 issue of the AMA’s journal Management Review by George Doran (PDF). In that piece, Doran comments how unpleasant it is to set objectives and that this is one of the reasons organizations resist it. Yet, in an age where accountability is held in high regard the role of the goal is not only strategic, but operationally critical to attracting and maintaining resources.

SMART goals are part of a larger process called performance management, which is a means by enhancing collective focus and alignment of individuals within an organization . Dartmouth College has a clearly articulated explanation of how goals are framed within the context of performance management:

” Performance goals enable employees to plan and organize their work in accordance with achieving predetermined results or outcomes. By setting and completing effective performance goals, employees are better able to:

  • Develop job knowledge and skills that help them thrive in their work, take on additional responsibilities, or pursue their career aspirations;
  • Support or advance the organization’s vision, mission, values, principles, strategies, and goals;
  • Collaborate with their colleagues with greater transparency and mutual understanding;
  • Plan and implement successful projects and initiatives; and
  • Remain resilient when roadblocks arise and learn from these setbacks.”

Heading somewhere, destination unknown

Evaluation professionals and managers alike love SMART goals and performance measurement. What’s not to like about something that specifically outlines what is to be done in detail, the date its required by, and in a manner that is achievable? It’s like checking off all the boxes in your management performance chart all at once! Alas, the problems with this approach are many.

Specific is pretty safe, so we won’t touch that. It’s good to know what you’re trying to achieve.

But what about measurable? This is what evaluators love, but what does it mean in practice? Metrics and measures reflect a certain type of evaluative approach and require the kind of questions, data collection tools and data to work effectively. If the problem being addressed isn’t something that lends itself to quantification using measures or data that can easily define a part of an issue, then measurement becomes inconclusive at best, useless at worst.

What if you don’t know what is achievable? This might be because you’ve never tried something before or maybe the problem set has never existed before now.

How do you know what realistic is? This is tricky because, as George Bernard Shaw wrote in Man and Superman:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

This issue of reasonableness is an important one because innovation, adaptation and discovery are not able reason, but aspiration and hope. Were it for reasonableness, we might have never achieved much of what we’ve set out to accomplish in terms of being innovative, adaptive or creative.

Reasonableness is also the most dangerous for those seeking to make real change and do true innovation. Innovation is not often reasonable, nor are the asks ‘reasonable.’ Most social transformations were not because of reasonable. Women’s rights to vote  or The rights of African Americans to be recognized and treated as human beings in the United States are but two examples from the 20th century that are able lack of ‘reasonableness’.

Lastly, what if you have no idea what the timeline for success is? If you’ve not tackled this before, are working on a dynamic problem, or have uncertain or unstable resources it might be impossible to say how long something will take to solve.

Rethinking goals and their evaluation

One of the better discussions on goals, goal setting and the hard truths associated with what it means to pursue a goal is from James Clear, who draws on some of the research on strategy and decision making to build his list of recommendations. Clear’s summary pulls together a variety of findings that show how individuals construct goals and seek to achieve them and the results suggest that the problem is less about the strategy used to reach a goal, but more on the goals themselves.

What is most relevant for organizations is the concept of ‘rudders and oars‘, which is about creating systems and processes for action and less on the goal itself. In complex systems, our ability to exercise control is highly variable and constrained and goals provide an illusory sense that we have control. So either we fail to achieve our goals or we set goals that we can achieve, which may not be the most important thing we aim for. We essentially rig our system to achieve something that might be achievable, but utterly not important.

Drawing on this work, we are left to re-think goals and commit to the following:

  1. Commit to a process, not a goal
  2. Release the need for immediate results
  3. Build feedback loops
  4. Build better systems, not better goals

To realize this requires an adaptive approach to strategy and evaluation where the two go hand-in-hand and are used systemically. It means pushing aside and rejecting more traditional performance measurement models for individuals and organizations and developing more fine-tuned, custom evaluative approaches that link data to decisions and decisions to actions in an ongoing manner.

It means thinking in systems, about systems and designing for ways to do both on an ongoing, not episodic manner.

The irony is, by minimizing or rejecting the use of goals, you might better achieve a goal of a more impactful, innovative, responsive and creative organization with a real mission for positive change.

 

 

Image credit: Author

 

social innovationsocial systemssystems thinking

Lost together

Lost and found

A post certainty world

Doing new things to create social value means going into the great unknown, yet our fear of being lost need not prevent us from innovating, wisely and sustainably. Instead of being lost alone, we can be lost together. 

I’ve heard it all so many times before

It’s all a dream to me now
A dream to me now
And if we’re lost
Then we are lost together

– Blue Rodeo (Lost Together)

Humans have real problems with uncertainty. Risk mitigation is an enormous field of work within business, government and politics and permeates decision making in our organizations. It’s partly this reason that our politicians too often speak so cryptically to the point of basically uttering nonsense – because they want to avoid the risk of saying something that will hurt them. The alternative perhaps is to spout so much untruth that it no longer matters what you say, because others will create messages about you.

Thankfully, we are still — and hopefully into the future — in a world where most of what organizations do is considered and evaluated with some care to the truth. ‘Truth’ or facts are much easier to deal with in those systems where we can generate the kind of evidence that enable us to make clear decisions based on replicable, verifiable and defensible research. Ordered systems where there is a cause-and-effect relationship that is (usually) clear, consistent and observable are those where we can design interventions to mitigate risk with confidence.

Risky options

There are four approaches to risk mitigation.

  1. Risk Acceptance involves awareness of what risks are present within the system and establishing strategy and an organizational culture where the nature, type and potential consequences of risks are (largely) known, accepted and lived with.
  2. Risk Avoidance takes the opposite approach and seeks to steer operations away from activities where risk is limited.
  3. Risk Limitation seeks to curtail and mitigate the effects of risk where possible and often involves contingency planning and balancing activities with higher levels of uncertainty with areas of greater confidence and certainty.
  4. Risk Transference involves finding ways to offload risk to a third party. An example can be found in many partnerships between organizations of different sizes or types where one is able to absorb certain risks while others cannot for various reasons and the activities allow for one partner to take lead on an activity that isn’t feasible for another to do so.

Within social innovation — those activities involving public engagement, new thinking and social benefit — there are few opportunities for #2, plenty for #1 and #3 and a growing number for #4.

Risk is a core part of innovation. To innovate requires risking time, energy, focus and other resources toward the attempt at something new to produce a valued alternative to the status quo. For many human service organizations and funders, these resources are so thinly spread and small in abundance that the idea of considering risk seems like a risk itself. Yet, the real problem comes in assuming that one can choose whether or not to engage risk. Unless you’re operating in a closed system that has relatively few changing elements to it, you’re exposed to risk by virtue of being in the system. To draw on one of my favourite quotes from the author Guiseppe di Lampedusa:

If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.

So even keeping things away from risk involves risk because if the world around you is changing the system changes with it and so, too does your position in it. If this makes you feel lost, you’re not alone. Many organizations (individuals, too) are struggling with figuring out where they fit in the world. If you want evidence of this consider the growing calls for skilled knowledge workers at the same time we are seeing a crisis among those with a PhD — those with the most knowledge (of certain sorts) — in the job market.

Community of flashlights

There is a parable of the drunkard who loses his keys on his way home at night and searches for them under the streetlight not because that’s where he lost them, but because it’s easier to see that spurred something called the Streetlight Effect. It’s about the tendency to draw on what we know and what we have at our disposal to frame problems and seek to solve them, even if they are the wrong tools — a form of observation bias in psychology. Streetlights are anchored, stable means of illuminating a street within a certain range – a risk zone, perhaps — but remain incomplete solutions.

Flashlights on the other hands have the same limitations (a beam of light), are less powerful, but are adaptive. You can port a flashlight or torch and aim it to where you want the light to shine. They are not as powerful as a streetlight in terms of luminosity, but are far more nimble. However, if you bring more than one flashlight together, all of a sudden the power of the light is extended. This is the principle behind many of the commercial LED systems that are in use. Small numbers of lights brought together, each using low energy, but collectively providing a powerful, adaptive lighting system

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This same principle can apply to organizations seeking to make change. Like an LED flashlight, they need a housing to hold and focus the lights. This can be in the form of a backbone organization such as those advocated in collective impact strategies. It can also be a set of principles or simple rules that provide a set of guides for organizations operating independently to follow, which will stimulate a consistent pattern of activity when applied, allowing similar, focused action on the same target at a distance.

This latter approach differs from collective impact, which is a top-down and bottom-up approach simultaneously and is a good means of focusing on larger, macro issues such as poverty reduction, climate change and city-building. It is an approach that holds potential for working within these larger issues on smaller, more dynamic ones such as neighbourhood building, conservation actions within a specific region, and workplace health promotion. In both cases the light analogy can hold and they need not be done exclusive of one another.

Let there be light

A flashlight initiative requires a lot of things coming together. It can be led by individuals making connections between others, brokering relationships and building community. It requires a vision that others can buy into and an understanding of the system (it’s level of complexity, structure and history). This understanding is what serves as the foundation for the determination of the ‘rules’ of the system, those touch points, attractors, leverage points and areas of push and pull that engage energy within a system (stay tuned to a future post for more detailed examples).

Much of the open-source movement is based on this model. This is about creating that housing for ideas to build and form freely, but with constraints. It’s a model that can work when collective impact is at a scale too large for an organization (or individual) to adequately envision contribution, but an alternative to going alone or relying only on the streetlight to find your way.

You might be lost, but with a flashlight you’ll be lost together and may just find your way.

Image credits: Author (Cameron Norman)

innovation

Acting on Failure or Failure to Act?

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Who would have thought that failure would be held up as something to be desired just a few years ago? Yet, it is one thing to extol the virtues of failure in words, it is quite another to create systems that support failure in action and if the latter doesn’t follow the former, failure will truly live up to its name among the innovation trends of the 21st century. 

Ten years ago if someone would have said that failure would be a hot term in 2014 I would have thought that person wasn’t in their right mind, but here we are seeing failure held up as an almost noble act with conferences, books and praise being heaped on those who fail. Failure is now the innovator’s not-so-secret tool for success. As I’ve written before, failure is being treated in a fetishistic manner as this new way to unlock creativity and innovation when what it might be is simply a means reducing people’s anxieties.

Saying it’s OK to fail and actually creating an environment where failure is accepted as a reasonable — maybe even expected — outcome is something altogether different. Take strategic planning. Ever see a strategic plan that includes failure in it? Have you ever seen an organization claim that it will do less of things, fail more often, and learn more through “not-achieving” rather than succeeding?? Probably not.

How often has a performance review for an individual or organization included learning (which is often related to failure) as a meaningful outcome? By this I refer to the kind of learning that comes from experience, from reflective practice, from the journey back and forth through confusion and clarity and from the experimentation of trying and both failing and succeeding. It’s been very rare that I’ve seen that in either corporate or non-profit spaces, at least in any codified form.

But as Peter Drucker once argued: what gets measured, get’s managed.

If we don’t measure failure, we don’t manage for it and nor do our teams include failure as part of their core sets of expectations, activities and outcomes and our plans or aspirations.

Failure, mindfulness and judgement

In 2010 post in Harvard Business Review, Larry Prusak commented on the phenomenon of measurement and noted that judgement — something that comes from experience that includes failure — is commonly missing from our assessments of performance of individuals and organizations alike. Judgement is made based on good information and knowledge, but also experience in using it in practice, reminding me of a quote a wise elder told me:

Good judgment comes from experience, but experience comes from bad judgment.

One of the persistent Gladwellian myths* out there is that of the 10,000 hours rule that suggests if we put that amount of time into something we’re likely to achieve a high level of expertise. This is true only if most of those 10,000 hours were mindful, deliberate ones devoted to the task at hand and involve learning from the successes, failures, processes and outcomes associated with those tasks. That last part about mindful, reflective attention or deliberate practice as the original research calls it (as so many Gladwellian myths suffer from) is left off of most discussions on the subject.

To learn from experience one has to pay attention to what one is doing, what one is thinking while doing it, and assessing the impact (evaluation) of that action once whatever is done is done. For organizations, this requires alignment between what people do and what they intend to do, requiring that mindful evaluation and monitoring be linked to strategy.

If we follow this lead where it takes us is placing failure near the centre of our strategy. How comfortable are you with doing that in your organization?

A failure of failure

Failure is among the most emotionally loaded words in the English language. While I often joke that the term evaluation is the longest four-letter word in the dictionary, failure is not far off. The problem with failure, as noted in an earlier post, is that we’ve been taught that failure is to be avoided and the opposite of success, which is viewed in positive terms.

Yet, there is another reason to question the utility of failure and that is also related to the term success. In the innovation space, what does success mean? This is not a trivial question because if one asks bold questions to seek novel solutions it is very likely that we don’t know what success actually looks like except in its most general sense.

A reading of case studies from Amazon to Apple and Acumen to Ashoka finds that their success looks different than the originators intended. Sometimes this success is far better and more powerful and sometimes its just different, but in all cases the path was littered with lessons and few failures. They succeeded because they learned, not because they failed.

Why? Because those involved in creating these ‘failures’ were paying attention, used the experience as feedback and integrated that into the next stage of development. With each stage comes more lessons and new challenges and thus, failure is only so if there is no learning and reflection. This is not something that can be wished for; it must be built into the organization.

So what to do?

  • Build in the learning capacity for your organization by making learning a priority and creating the time, space and organizational support for getting feedback to support learning. Devoting a small chunk of time to every major meeting to reflecting back what you’re learning is a great way to start.
  • Get the right feedback. Developmental evaluation is an approach that can aid organizations working in the innovation space to be mindful.
  • Ask lots of questions of yourself, your stakeholders, what you do and the systems you’re in.
  • Learn how to design for your particular program context based on feedback coming from the question asking and answering. Design is about experimenting without the expectation of immediate success.
  • Develop safe-fail experiments that allow you to try novel approaches in a context that is of relatively low risk to the entire organization.

There are many ways to do this and systems that can support you in truly building the learning capacity of your organization to be better at innovating while changing the relationship you have with ‘failure’.

For more information about how to do this, CENSE Research + Design offers consultation and training to get organizations up to speed on designing for social innovation.

 

* Refers to ideas popularized by journalist and essayist Malcolm Gladwell that are based on the scientific research of professionals and distilled into accessible forms for mass market reading that become popular and well-known through further social discussion in forms that over-simplify and even distort the original scientific findings. It’s a social version of the “telephone game“. The 10,000 hour ‘rule’ was taken from original research by K. Anders Ericsson and colleagues on deliberate practice and is often discussed in the context of professional (often medical) training, where the original research was focused. This distortion is not something Gladwell intends, rather becomes an artifact of having ideas told over and again between people who may have never seen the original work or even Gladwell’s, but take ideas that become rooted in popular culture. A look at citations on failure and innovation finds that the term deliberate practice is rarely, if ever, used in the discussion of the “10,000 rule”.

 

Photo Credit: Project365Fail by Mark Ordonez used under Creative Commons license via Flickr. Thanks for sharing, Mark!