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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?