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Tools to plan for the future

Have you ever planned extensively for a trip, thinking through all of the things that could go wrong – lost luggage, food sickness, missing a flight, etc. – thinking with confidence that you have this trip in the bag, and then suddenly something unthinkable happens that you couldn’t possibly have planned for, such as a hurricane or robbery? All too often, this scenario plays out when working to drive change in complex environments, just swap out lost luggage for funding cuts and a hurricane for a shift in the political environment.  When these things happen, not only do we struggle to think through the best road ahead quickly, we may also lack the flexible resources needed to adapt our work. In order to be successful, planning to drive change in complex environments should be adaptive and flexible because the environment this work happens in is constantly evolving. Enter adaptive planning and scenario mapping.

Unlike traditional planning processes, adaptive planning keeps the focus primarily on the results you’re trying to achieve, with less time spent on creating detailed strategic plans. Instead of planning for everything that needs to get done for years to come, you plan for the destination, some key milestones, and tomorrow’s work, with planned stops and adjustment points along the way. One of the tools we use in adaptive planning is scenario mapping, which surfaces the possible future environments in which work will take place and explores how decisions and actions might play out under the different conditions. This insight into what the future may look like helps in thinking about the ways the strategy needs to be adaptive and what elements of the strategy will remain relevant regardless of the future that unfolds. Once you have your scenarios documented, there is an opportunity to assess what it will take to be successful in each environment and even whether success is defined the same across all the environments.

Scenario Planning in Action

While we’re unlikely to apply scenario planning to our travel plans (although some mishaps might be avoided if we did!), there are real systems change efforts we can use as an illustration.  In 2013, The Colorado Health Foundation (TCHF) transitioned from a public charity to a private foundation and strategically began rethinking its grantmaking approach while applying more focus on the organizational goal that all Coloradans have stable, affordable, and adequate health coverage. Early on, TCHF staff recognized the need for an adaptive strategy, given the uncertainty in the political environment, and that the policies advocates choose to pursue often depended on political windows of opportunity.

Leverage the purple status in the state when developing strategies and framing the conversations;Prior to the election, Colorado’s purple political environment, as well as the mix of successes and challenges in health reform implementation, led to general agreement among advocates that Colorado was in a “We can fix it, so we hope” scenario. However, with the political changes at the federal level, advocates are now split between the “We can fix it, so we hope” scenario and the “Lingering demise of health reform” scenario. As a result, the advocates and stakeholders, including TCHF grantees, proposed shifting their tactics to:

  • Bring multiple groups together in innovative ways to build on each other’s resources and strength in order to maximize impact; and
  • Identify actions at the state versus federal level, where the political shifts were less drastic.

This highlights a critical advantage to adaptive planning: the ability to proactively revisit and update your work to adapt and respond to the environment in which you are working in order to be the most effective, even when there is a significant “shock” to the system.

What is the big takeaway from this? Whether you’re planning a trip, a funding strategy, or other ways of changing the world, unpredictable dynamics – often beyond our sphere of control – require the types of adaptation, learning while doing, and flexibility that adaptive planning and scenario mapping allow for.

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What Time Travel Taught Me About Systems Change

The idea of time travel has always fascinated me and, if the recent proliferation of time travel-based TV shows (see: Outlander, Timeless, Making History, Travelers, Legends of Tomorrow) is any indication, I am not alone. Not only does time travel make for great reading and viewing, it can also be an interesting way to think about systems change.

Stay with me for a moment.

Many depictions of time travel in popular culture focus on whether or not it is possible to change history. To do so, they often feature a character who – intentionally or otherwise – travels back in time and attempts to stop some historic event from happening.  One of the most famous scenarios, which persists across multiple mediums, is killing Hitler to prevent the Holocaust and World War II. Leaving aside the many time travel paradoxes (e.g., the Let’s Kill Hitler paradox), the characters are often unsuccessful because of the myriad factors that precipitated the event.

In this case, killing Hitler to avoid the Holocaust and World War II assumes Hitler was the sole cause of the events, which is an oversimplification of the complexities that led to the war. Repercussions from the First World War, the great depression, and many other factors were in place; Hitler was just able to capitalize on them. Avoiding World War II would require addressing the root causes of the political, economic, and social turmoil that existed in post-World War I Germany, as well as the policies of appeasement and failures of the League of Nations.

Changing systems is similar in many ways

The systems in which we operate are complex, just like the problems we are trying to address. For example, while the Safe to Sleep campaign has reduced the incidence rate of SIDS by more than 50%, infant mortality remains a persistent problem. The temptation may be to assume that some people just aren’t aware of the importance of infants sleeping on their backs in beds clear of soft bedding. However, digging deeper reveals that, while many parents know about these recommendations, they don’t have money to adequately heat their house and worry about their children being too cold at night, or they don’t have room or money for a crib. There may also be cultural reasons they are choosing to sleep with their babies. Taking this into consideration moves our focus from solely on educating parents about safe sleep environments and expands it to addressing issues of poverty and housing in the context of culture.

Similarly, we may note that nurse family partnerships are effective programs, helping families with the issues that drive infant mortality. As such, we could encourage more funders to fund them or more providers to offer them. But what about families who can’t access these programs? Are there enough providers qualified to offer effective programs? Are there needs that remain unmet?  If we were to devote all our resources simply to growing the number of these programs, we may miss other opportunities to intervene or, in the worst case, target resources in an ineffective way.

A laser focus on specific endpoints, deliverables, or outcomes – like killing Hitler – can cause us to miss the bigger picture and thus opportunities to affect meaningful, systemic change.

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November SparkNews: Keeping the Momentum

Spark Policy Institute

Spark logoOur original plan for this month was to write about thankfulness – how thankful we are for you, our partners, who are the best part of what we do. We are grateful and humbled every day that we get to work alongside such inspiring people and organizations, whose efforts and initiatives are making a difference throughout the country. But we also want to touch on the election and its implications. We work with partners who have been advancing policy and community strategies to address important issues at all levels, from individual lives to how communities, cities, regions and the country respond to problems. During times of significant political and social shifts, it can be difficult to maintain the momentum of this work. Yet, the importance of it has not diminished; if anything, it is even more important.

Core to who we are at Spark is our commitment to engage in learning and reflective processes in a way that helps our partners identify what still holds true about how you can act to advance the issues you care about, and when and how you need to adapt. We also want to reaffirm our commitment to addressing inequity, ensuring voices are heard, accepted, and respected, while building capacity, in an effort to drive meaningful systems change for all.

Read the rest of the newsletter. Want to receive more updates like this? You can also subscribe to our newsletter to receive monthly updates.

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The Core Elements of Advancing an Emergent Strategy Toward Systems Change, Part 2

Core elements of emergent strategy

This is the second part of a two-part blog that looks at the core elements of emergent strategies and how focusing on these elements allows us to manage and even benefit from the ambiguity and conflict that naturally emerge when solving complex problems.

Our last blog looked at the four core elements of advancing an emergent strategy toward system change:

Core elements of an emergent strategyNow, let’s explore the consequences of not balancing the four elements. Let’s imagine some scenarios where only a couple of these things are moving forward and explore what that does to a group’s ability to drive change:

  • Attention to Structure and Learning: A group that focuses on how they are going to work together and engages in reflection (with a facilitator or developmental evaluator) focused on their group process is likely to fail to develop a good structure. Absent something to work on, coming up with a structure can be difficult and breed conflict that is not productive.
  • Attention to Experimentation and Learning: This sounds good! Rapid deployment of experiments, learning, and adaptation in response to feedback is critical in any systems change effort! Yet, without untangling the problem, over time the experiments may come to feel less and less rewarding as they aren’t driving toward systemic and significant change. Lacking a functional structure, it may be very difficult to switch from experimentation to scaling and institutionalizing change.
  • Attention to Untangling and Structure: Talk about a buzz kill! Attention to two things that take a great deal of time and energy, feel “processey,” and are rarely inspiring can keep a group from ever getting to action.
Setting a clear vision and goals

You may be wondering at this point where vision and goal setting fit into this description of these core elements. I am going to make a bold suggestion: setting clear goals should not be a priority when engaging in emergent strategies to drive systems change.

Emergent strategy needs space to emerge. Sometimes in the process of structuring, a clear vision or goal naturally emerges. Often in the process of untangling, a set of defined changes emerge. Experimentation can surface mechanisms to drive change. A learning process can gradually surface the underlying theories of change. Allowing this type of direction setting to emerge naturally over time frees groups to try things in new ways. Forcing clearly defined goals too early can create similar dynamics to the challenges explored above, creating conflict in the attempt to eliminate ambiguity.

Now, the reality is that groups engaged in emergent strategy will always operate with a theory of why the actions they take matter, however loosely thought through (and often not articulated), and there may be value in taking time to surface the operating theories tied to various actions. But, trying to define THE theory of how these actions will drive systems change is often counterproductive during emergent strategies, as this takes away the emergent nature of the strategy and leaves the group back where they started: implementing the strategies they can think through at this time, based on their current knowledge and experience. Innovative, transformative work requires giving ourselves more time to emerge into a new level and type of understanding before we define how change happens.

Finding Balance

Now let’s imagine a group that is in balance and allowing emergent strategy to unfold naturally:

Early in their process they agree to work collaboratively and allow any two partners to initiate an experiment together, without group consensus being needed (Structure, Experiment). They retain a developmental evaluator to help them learn from the experiments and untangle the larger problem and its systemic drivers (Learn, Untangle).

As they learn more about the problem, their experiments begin to align with specific drivers and become increasingly innovative. They also begin to see, as a group, some potential areas of focus where they feel positioned to make a significant difference. However, there is still some push/pull tension and even conflict about the focus. So before they try to resolve this tension, they decide to develop a more formal structure, setting in place a consensus decision-making process that requires organizational sign-off, not just the individuals in the room (Structure). They also dig in deep on two specific drivers to understand how they can act on them (Untangle). One of their early experiments is proving to have significant impact (Learn), so they make the decision to experiment next by expanding its scope and reach (Experiment).

At a pre-planned reflection moment, they look at their work and realize they are no longer implementing emergent strategy. Rather, the goals are becoming increasingly clear and agreed upon, and are strategies they can deploy. By giving themselves permission to operate amid ambiguity and work through conflict, they have arrived at a place where they are ready to focus and tackle complex, systemic work in a way they have never done before!

This type of progress through an emergent strategy is not easy work and it does not (and should not) eliminate ambiguity and conflict. It can turn them from barriers to emergent strategy into productive elements of strategy when groups give themselves permission to remain emergent and balance their focus on structuring, learning, experimentation, and untangling.

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The Core Elements of Advancing an Emergent Strategy toward Systems Change

Core elements of emergent strategy

This is the first of a two-part blog that looks at the core elements of emergent strategies and how focusing on these elements allows us to manage and even benefit from the ambiguity and conflict that naturally emerge when solving complex problems.

Fifteen years into designing, facilitating and evaluating emergent strategies intended to effect systems change, I have come to the conclusion that two things are inevitable:

  • Emergent strategy is messy
  • Emergent strategy generates conflict

Neither are bad things. When we decide to solve a complex problem together, chances are we aren’t headed in a transformative direction if we resolve the mess quickly, figuring out where we’re going and how. And if we manage to do the work with little to no conflict, chances are we aren’t pushing boundaries, taking risks, and scaling the work in ways that will have significant impact.

Yet, even if messiness and conflict are inevitable and are even good signs that the work is doing what it’s supposed to do, that doesn’t mean we want to get stuck in either one. Many systems change initiatives do exactly that – allow interpersonal and inter-organizational conflicts to trump the ability to drive change. And as that conflict is building, the accompanying inability to find a specific goal, project, set of outcomes or other defining “shape” to the initiative leaves participants frustrated and less and less bought in.

How can we turn the ambiguity and conflict into positive drivers of change? One way is to be careful about where we focus our energy. Based on the many initiatives I’ve worked with, I’ve come to believe groups need to attend to four things in a balanced way over time in order to progress through messiness and conflict productively:
Core elements of an emergent strategy

The Four Elements, Unpacked

Untangle: That vision statement, strategy document, or problem definition that brought the group together is rarely enough to really understand the opportunity. Even early in a group process, most initiatives can benefit from untangling the problem and opportunity more fully. They can leverage the insights from participants at the table, but also can benefit from external knowledge being brought in. Techniques like systems mapping, scenario mapping, review of similar initiatives, influence mapping and more can help untangle a problem. If the goal is to drive systems change, taking the time to understand the variety of types of leverage points that can be moved within the system can be invaluable.

Experiment: Even before the untangling has begun, and certainly while it’s underway, groups can begin experimenting. Experimentation can be as simple as finding small things to do together that are different from what has been done before. They should be low stakes, quick to implement, quick to learn from, and relevant to the larger vision or direction of the group. They do not need to be planned with specific outcomes in mind, particularly early in the process, as sometimes the attention to defining outcomes can hang up newly forming groups who are doing emergent strategy. As the work progresses, however, experiments tend to become more formally defined and tied to intentional outcomes.

Learn: What’s the point of untangling and experimentation if the group isn’t engaging in learning? Even if outcomes are not clearly defined for experiments, you can learn from them – what impact did they have on the participating organizations? What changes resulted from the experiment? What did it take to implement it? What did we learn about what is possible and what excites us as a group? What does it tell us about the direction we might want to go (or not go)? As a group begins to implement experiments with more clearly defined outcomes, the learning can shift to understanding how specific leverage points are having an impact on the problem, which leverage points are generating the greatest impact for the least effort and whether leverage points are being pushed in the right direction.

Structure: Many groups start here – spending a great deal of time planning their structure. In emergent strategy, loose coupling can be more powerful at times than a heavy-handed structure. In fact, taking time to decide how you’re going to make decisions for the long haul can be counterproductive if the decisions to be made in the next year are relatively low stakes, decision-makers will need to change as a direction begins to emerge later, and future decisions will require more formalized processes to be accepted by the organizations affected. Allowing a looser process for decision-making earlier can free the group up to be experimental and have fun. Yes, I said “have fun.” This is hard work and getting people excited and maintaining excitement and momentum is critical. The commitment to setting up the best possible structure tends to kill that excitement pretty quickly. Yet, absent any attention to structure, it becomes evident that even the fun decisions are hard to make!

Most groups are familiar with these elements, but often get stuck focusing on some of them, which at best can lead to poor structures or poorly thought out experiments, and at worse can lead to spinning wheels and burn out. We’ll dive deeper into this in our next blog. In the meantime, share your thoughts. Is there anything else you find to be essential in an emergent strategy?