Prototyping and strategic planning
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My friends over at the Social Labs Revolution website have been fielding questions about the prototyping phase of labwork and today published a nice compilation of prototyping resources. It’s worth a visit. It got me thinking this morning about some of the tools I use for planning these days.
Tools for prototyping abound – discerning what’s needed, trying things out, iterating and learning. In my experience, working on complex challenges requires us to master first of all the mindset of complexity work and then deploy tools. We have to be careful about the tools we employ because some are great for linear, predictive planning and others require us to work on challenges differently. When working with truly complex challenges, we create processes that generate a number of hypotheses about what to do and create very small probes to test the efficacy and coherence of these kinds of interventions. This is deeply informed by the PROBE – SENSE – RESPOND rubric that Dave Snowden employs for complexity work.
Disrupting a mindset to enable people to work well in complexity requires groups to confront its assumptions about planning and execution. When I’m working on truly complex challenges, my process begins with a bit of theory to understand the different kinds of problems we face, through an exploration of the Cynefin framework, which helps to explain the differences between ordered and unordered situations. Sometimes we even incorporate play, movement and improvisational exercises to remind us of what we already know about complex challenges.
From there we move to exploring and deploying new approaches and toolsets. Recently I’ve begun to think of correlations between tradition strategic planning processes and complexity managing processes. Traditional strategic planning works well in ordered domains, where the future is predictable and knowable. But for complex challenges, it goes like this:
Environmental scans vs. discerning patterns. In traditional strategic planning, scans are given a lot of weight. THe data and observations about a problem that are brought into a planning process determine the rest of the process – they describe the problem to be addressed and they shape the scope of the plans that follow. In complexity work we begin by working with patterns to look at the present state of the system and discern need. We can use all kinds of sources for this, but the data are also collected through storytelling processes (anecdote circles, in various forms, is my preferred method). Participants in the process then work with the data to cluster and find overarching patterns that we can work with. It’s important in complexity that we understand that not everything can be known about a system or a problem and so beginning with story helps set us off on work that is important.
Visioning and goal setting vs. scenario planning. In traditional strategic planning an emphasis is put on getting the future state right, through visioning, goal setting, and pre-determining outcomes. In complexity work, we begin by admitting that the future is unpredictable. I address this future looking part of planning by working with scenarios that are created based on stories that we gather. The goal is to create multiple plausible futures, because teams and organization need to be prepared for various outcomes and possibilities. Hanging a strategic plan on one known outcome makes a team blind to opportunity and deviations that might lead them into much better or much worse places. Having various scenarios at hand helps the teams to keep exploring possibilities and define a territory of action rather than a single point of attack. It helps teams be more agile and aware of the dynamics affecting their work. Creating scenarios has the added benefit of helping a team get clear about the intentions that drive it, and the frames by which they will know what is “good” and what is not. This replaces the “goals and objectives” part of cascading hierarchical planning.
Goals and objectives vs. probes and prototypes. In linear problems solving, strategic planning meets operational planning at the level of project management. In order to build a bridge, you need to have all the materials and labour arranged and together and you need to organize how they will all be deployed to get your result. In complexity (and I include in this the work of non-profits and communities) it’s important to probe the system with ideas, to test out hypotheses about what might work, and to amplyfy successes and move away from failures. We plan by acting and learning rather than creating abstract goals and objectives and then trying to fit our actions into the plan.
Summative evaluation vs. Developmental evaluation and learning. Traditional strategic planning almost unquestioningly uses summative evaluation to measure what happened. How close did you come to your targets? Who is accountable for that hit or miss? In complexity work we create feedback loops to learn what is going on as it evolves, always gathering information about where we are and what we are doing and what we are learning. The basic frame of “What? So What? Now What?” is the heuristic we use for evaluating projects and work. Building developmental evaluation frameworks and using sensemaking processes to collective see, learn, make meaning, and act together is critical.
These four mindset contrasts form the core basis of the way I help teams develop planning skills for complex challenges. Traditional strategic planning methods and project management tools are useful for complicated, ordered challenges, but the complex work requires us to take a step off that old familiar ground and into new ways of doing things. This is one easier way to begin.