Setting Strategy Via a Participatory Approach

IMG_2165While listening to the stories of friends working in a range of institutions, such as public schools, corporations, and non-profits, I hear increasing frustration with how strategy gets determined by a small group “at the top” and rolled down. The people who implement a strategy or new program often do not have a voice to participate in developing the strategy. Management gets frustrated by a lack of buy-in and resistance. This is a classic problem within hierarchical fragmented organizations – one part is telling another part what to do.

We have been exploring how to develop strategy in a participatory way, seeing the organization not as a machine to command and control, but rather as a living system. Key principles of what make a healthy living system are strong relationships, robust exchange of information and resources, and continual adaption and learning attuned to the changing environment.  The living system is made up of stakeholders within and outside the organization, such as staff, customers, and donors/investors.

A strategic planning process is an opportunity to strengthen collaborative learning within and across this “ecosystem of stakeholders.”  When strategy is developed in a participatory way, the process becomes a vehicle to build commitment to the mission and the organization, strengthen relationships and mutual understanding among stakeholders, and get ownership of the goals… all of which feed into motivation, momentum and commitment to implementation of the goals.

The Process

Our approach focuses on helping discern the future possibility that the stakeholders engaged with the organization are excited to bring into being. The heart of the approach is to ask strategic questions that build on the organization’s strengths (e.g., appreciative inquiry).  We see our role as facilitators – an organization’s ecosystem of stakeholders are the experts on the situation.  We bring a range of participatory facilitation tools that will enable them to ask the right powerful questions, access diverse stakeholder input, think deeply, and find their way to a clear set of priorities.

Thoughtfully-structured spaces for group conversations on strategic questions are the core way to gather information and generate insights, e.g., about relevant trends.  These “collaborative learning” conversations encourage sharing of multiple perspectives and cross-pollinating of ideas, which enable access to the collective intelligence of a group.  New ideas and insights are more likely to emerge and key themes become clear to participants through the course of the conversation.  The insights and learning are held in the group, in contrast to one-on-one interviews with consultants, where perspectives stay fragmented and much of the learning ends up with the consultant or those conducting the interviews.

For example, with a recent strategy process with a school, instead of coming in as experts and interviewing lots of people and summarizing that information, we convened a series of conversations via video-conference with stakeholders. These conversations explored questions around what they see as the value of the experience offered by the school and what emerging trends the school could be positioned well to address. Stakeholders could hear each others’ input, and key themes emerged across the many conversations. Staff and board members participated throughout.

Do Nothing About Me Without Me

Strategy development that fully engages stakeholders is an example of adaptive leadership, as this GEO publication, Do Nothing About Me Without Me, describes. It quotes Ronald A. Heifetz, cofounder of Cambridge Leadership Associates and founder of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School, saying that complex situations need adaptive leadership, defined as learning with and from others about the nature of the problems and what it might take to solve them. “The stakeholders themselves must create and put the solution into effect since the problem is rooted in their attitudes, priorities and behavior. And until the stakeholders change their outlook, a solution cannot emerge.”

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