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Strategic Planning with a Systems Thinker

Anyone who has read stuff that I have written, or has talked to me about who inspires my work, knows that I’m a big fan of the late Donella Meadows – environmentalist, journalist, farmer, systems thinker, both a Pew Scholar in Conservation and Environment and a MacArthur Fellow. She wrote a brilliant piece called Dancing With Systems that I have returned to time and again. I’m not sure what Ms. Meadows would think of my imposing a strategic-planning-framework onto her dancing-with-systems-framework but I think she’d like it, or at least be amused by it. 

The reason I wanted to try to bring the two together is that strategic planning is still so dominated by a command and control approach. But, as  Dana O’Donovan & Noah Rimland Flower argue in The Strategic Plan is Dead. Long Live Strategic Planning, “It is important to remember that strategy’s roots are military. Military strategy focuses on setting objectives, collecting intelligence, and then using that intelligence to make informed decisions about how to achieve your objectives—take that hill, cut this supply line…This approach to strategic planning was a reasonably good fit for much of the business world from the fifties through the eighties…the trusted, traditional approach to strategic planning is based on assumptions that no longer hold. The static strategic plan is dead.”

So, it might be that the strategic plan is dead. But planning is not. Planning is of utmost importance in a changing, complex, turbulent world. I believe Donella Meadows’ Dancing With Systems 14-steps to designing and redesigning systems, whatever systems they are – political, organizational, social, economic – hold deep relevancy for planning. As you and your organizations think about strategic planning, consider how you might dance your way through the process: 

1. Get the beat. Before your organization embarks on a strategic planning exercise, “watch how it behaves … learn its history. Ask people who’ve been around a long time to tell you what has happened. Pay attention to the value of what’s already there.” Too often our strategic planning starts from zero and turns a blind eye to where the organization has come from. But to know where you are going you have to know from whence you came. Always start any planning or visioning with a careful ear to the beat of your organization and what makes – has made – it hum over the years. 

2. Listen to the wisdom of the system. Too often organizations look to facilitators and professional consultants to shape their planning exercise, and for good reason as proper facilitation can help the process enormously. But, it’s often at the expense of those within the organization who hold the history, the values, the knowledge – the wisdom – of the system. “Aid and encourage the forces and structures that help the system run itself.” Pull in your employees, your board members, your volunteers, your donors, your champions on the sidelines, and include them in the process of shaping your future. They are what makes your system run. It’s strategic planning with them, not for them. 

3. Expose your mental models to the open air. “Remember, always, that everything you know, and everything everyone knows, is only a model. Get your model out there where it can be shot at. Invite others to challenge your assumptions and add their own.” This is rarely done in strategic planning, or rarely done well. But when added to an organization’s approach to future directions, it can be immensely enriching. Invite people to poke holes in your plan. Share drafts. Get other like-minded organizations to comment. Ask others to find your blind spots and challenge your thinking. This will make your planning more robust, better rationalized, stronger, and more relevant.

4. Stay humble. Stay a learner. Here’s one of the kickers. Too many organizations see the Strategic Plan as a static document against which they monitor progress. And monitoring is important – critical in fact – but not against rigid indicators that don’t adapt to changing conditions and externalities. Changing internalities as well. “In a world of complex systems, it is not appropriate to charge forward with rigid, undeviating directives. ‘Stay the course’ is only a good idea if you’re sure you’re on course…What’s appropriate…is small steps, constant monitoring, and a willingness to change course as you find out more about where it’s leading.” This is hard in a world where we want solid answers and firm metrics, otherwise it’s messy and more nebulous. But Donella was onto something here that can’t be ignored. It’s a whole new way of thinking and can be quite liberating when embraced. 

5. Honor and protect information. This one’s not so hard. “I would guess that 99% of what goes wrong in systems goes wrong because of faulty or missing information. You can make a system work better with surprising ease if you can give it more timely, more accurate, more complete information.” In planning, bring information to the table. What’s worked? What hasn’t? Why? How do you know? Only then can an organization make smart decisions about future directions. Do your homework and inform the system. It will pay dividends.

6. Locate responsibility in the system. I often hear people say “a plan is only worth the paper it’s written on.” Unless an organization locates responsibility in the system for the implementation of the plan then that maxim is entirely true. “‘Intrinsic responsibility’ means that the system is designed to send feedback about the consequences of decision-making directly and quickly and compellingly to the decision-makers.” Once your organization has done its planning and has its directions mapped out, ask yourselves Who’s responsible for what? Over what time period? How will it be reported back? By when? 

7. Make feedback policies for feedback systems. This one’s a little harder to superimpose on strategic planning but what Meadows was arguing was that we should be coming up with “policies that design learning into the management process.” So, in the context of strategic planning, maybe it’s to make feedback processes for feedback systems. What does that mean? This takes me to monitoring and evaluation. How do you create feedback loops as you implement your plan that allow your organization to constantly check in with how the plan is working, and – where it’s not – to do a mid-course correction, and make learning a central aspect of the whole process. 

8. Pay Attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable. It’s so easy to count numbers. How many people did you reach? How many acres were saved? How many youth attended the concert? How many facebook followers do you have? Tweets retweeted? “Our culture, obsessed with numbers, has given us the idea that what we can measure is more important than what we can’t measure. You can look around you and make up your own mind about whether quantity or quality is the outstanding characteristic of the world in which you live.”  Make sure your planning metrics pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable. Some things just can’t be measured in inches and feet, like staff morale, the impact on human lives and potential, the quality of relationships with collaborators, and the list goes on. 

9. Go for the good of the whole. “As you think about a system, spend part of your time from a vantage point that lets you see the whole system, not just the problem that may have drawn you to focus on the system to begin with.” I just read a fabulous case study on the RE-AMP Energy Network done by the Monitor Institute, in which they argue quite eloquently about the need to go for the good of the whole – to see the whole system and understand one’s place in it. Organizations only work within contexts – political, social, environmental – not apart from them. By placing your organizational planning squarely within the context in which your organization operates, you amplify your planning efforts by pointing your ship in a direction that makes sense. As one of the consultants to the RE-AMP network noted, “The interconnectedness of the issues, and the danger of potentially working against other advocates, was really the biggest ‘aha’ of it all.”

10. Expand time horizons. I love this one because despite what it suggests, it’s not about looking further into the future. It’s about expanding our understanding of short- and long-term phenomena and how they are nested one within the other. In good strategic planning, it’s not just about casting forward 10 years from now but understanding how actions taken now will have immediate impacts, and how some will resonate out decades from now; and, likewise, how actions taken 5 years ago still influence our organizations today. “When you’re walking along a tricky, curving, unknown, surprising, obstacle-strewn path, you’d be a food to keep your head down and look just at the next step in front of you. You’d be equally a fool just to peer far ahead and never notice what’s immediately under your feet. You need to be watching both the short and the long term – the whole system.”

11. Expand thought horizons. “Defy the disciplines. It will be sure to lead across traditional disciplinary lines. To understand that system, you will have to be able to learn from–while not being limited by–economists and chemists and psychologists and theologians.” Strategic planning can be very inward-focused, which isn’t a bad thing. But that can often mean that we are limited by the input of those formally connected to the organization. Like exposing our models to the open air, we should be exposing our planning to those that work across disciplines, across ethnicity, across gender, across age groups, across the close circles we start to move in. This is particularly true of organizations that serve a diversity of people, places, and projects. Include those voices in your planning process, or at the very least, groundtruth your plans with them. 

12. Expand the boundary of caring. This is the “do no harm” clause. We often think of organizations in their four walls, doing their thing, ‘sticking to their knitting” so to speak. But they are not separate. Everything you do – everything your organization does – is linked to all else. So while we need to plan for our distinct entities – be they foundations, NGOs, social purpose enterprises  – those plans are ipso facto felt by others. Do no harm and recognize that your plans are not externally neutral. “The real system is interconnected. No part of the human race is separate either from the human beings or from the global ecosystem. It will not be possible in this integrated world for your heart to succeed if your lungs fail, or for your company to succeed if your workers fail, or for Europe to succeed if Africa fails, or for the global economy to succeed if the global environment fails.”

13. Celebrate complexity. This is what allows me to sleep at night. We so want to get the answer right. To have a set course, and stick to it, and have it work out effectively. But we all know that doesn’t happen. “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, gang aft agley” or as Steinbech paraphrased, “The best-laid plans of mice and men, often go awry.” And that’s natural. Perhaps even good. “Let’s face it, the universe is messy. It is nonlinear, turbulent, and chaotic. It is dynamic. It spends time in transient behaviour on its way to somewhere else, not in mathematically neat equillibrium. It self-organizes and evolves. It creates diversity, not uniformity. That’s what makes this world interesting, that’s what makes it beautiful, and that’s what makes it work.” The same is true of the universe that is our organizations. The less we fight it, the more we learn to adapt, the stronger, more creative, more resilient our organizations will be.  

14. Hold fast to the goal of goodness. I might amend this one a little from Donella’s original list, not because I don’t respect and appreciate, and agree with, where she’s coming from but because it reminds me of the words of another wise sage of the modern age. Parker Palmer, Founder and Senior Partner of the Centre for Courage & Renewal, talks about the tragic gap, by which he means “the distance between what is and what we know to be possible; the tension between the reality of the moment and the possibility that something better might emerge.” So I agree with Donella, that we must hold fast to the goal of goodness. She rightly argues that “The public discourse is full of cynicism. Public leaders are visibly, unrepentantly, amoral or immoral and are not held to account. Idealism is ridiculed. Statements of moral belief are suspect. Don’t weigh the bad news more heavily than the good. And keep standards absolute.” I work in the world of social change which is by and large about goodness, a better world, more creative solutions to intractable problems. One of the big challenges for the organizations that I work with is using the planning process to hold fast to goodness while sitting in the tragic gap. Squarely in it. So that our plans are aspirational but realistic and truly serve to help us strive for what’s possible to meet the world’s need.