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by Brent Lowe, Susan Basterfield & Travis Marsh

Organizations plan in two ways: predicting the future and then aiming to control outcomes or sensing what’s changing and responding accordingly. The former continues to rule the day, but progressive leaders see that predictions have become less reliable. With this knowledge, they are shifting how their organizations set strategy.

In this Authors’ Q&A blogpost Lead Together co-authors Brent Lowe, Susan Basterfield and Travis Marsh share insights into how self-managing organizations adopt a bold approach to strategy.

Question: How does the approach to strategy differ in traditional vs self-managing organizations?

Susan Basterfield:

It’s important to note that we’re not proposing not to have a strategy. Of course, you should know what your goals and objectives are, where you’re trying to get to. The difference in bold strategy in leading together is that our feedback loops are much tighter.

We are not saying “this is our three year plan, these are our targets every month, and we not deviating from that until we get to month 10.” Then by month 10 in the budget, we have to kill all expenses, because we’re going over budget, right? That’s the way that it used to look in organizations that I’m sure that all of us are familiar with.

The idea that the future emerges as we walk along the path is really what we’re trying to indicate here with the idea of bold and emergent strategy. A beneficial practice is creating the conditions within your organization to do regular collective reflection or retrospectives. The main difference is that this enables a more agile approach to building product and testing initiatives. This way of thinking about your organization can unearth its unique potential because if we’re working in this way, we’re not limiting the potential by having a pejorative target on everything.

And at the same time, it’s allowing us to learn to listen more to what is happening, what the organization needs, and how we can impact what happens next.

Question: What are the different elements of the strategic planning process in organizations that adopt a Lead Together approach to developing bold strategy?

Brent Lowe:

For every strategy planning process, there’s a sensing step, an aggregating step, and a planning step.

In a traditional “predict and control” approach, it tends to be that the sensing, which is the collecting of data and information, there’s a small group that will go out and do that. Then they’ll come together, maybe six people in a room, and they’ll aggregate their data. Both of those steps are done pretty quickly. Then, there’s a really long planning process that most of us are familiar with, with extensive document creation, extensive budget creation.

The “sense and respond” model takes sensing and aggregating and expands those, and shrinks the planning phase. Instead of having a small number of people doing sensing, how can we bring the entire organization or maybe even people outside the organization into the sensing process? How can we ask the right people the right questions, and collect helpful data? Rather than having a really small group of people aggregating, how do we have everybody participate?
There are a number of really beautiful processes that can be implemented. All of the Lead Together co-authors work with liberating structures, as one example of how we can do a lot of aggregating with a big group of people.

Planning becomes the lightest touch possible to enable a quick feedback loop.
After we’ve done all the sensing in the aggregating, what’s required, right now (not what’s may be required six months from now, 12 months from now) and can we go do that thing right now, whatever it is? All the plan we need is what we’re going to do next week. We then continue to sense until something changes. Then we go through the process again.

In traditional organizations sense and aggregate and plan normally happens on an annual basis. A sense and response plan could happen weekly. It speaks again to that fast feedback loop, and the lightest touch possible on the end to replace that really full planning process that we’re used to.

Question: Why is important for us to ‘hold plans lightly’ when it comes to strategy?

Travis Marsh:

I think we were all given a masterclass from the universe on holding plans lightly with COVID-19 over the last year. All great plans hit a brick wall in many organizations. We have a plan and we think it’s going to work, and then the data from the real world comes back in and shows us where we are.

The reason this whole sense and respond approach to strategy works better is because we’re really in a complex or a chaotic world, not just a complicated one. We can put these all the pieces together building on the Cynefin framework, to understand why these new ways of showing up and building strategy are so important and why even with our best laid plans we should really hold lightly and adjust often.

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