Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Words Make Worlds - Part 4 - Strategy vs Cultivation

(Last August, I became deeply inspired by work coming from David Cooperrider and Lindsey N. Godwin at Case Western - Positive Organization Development: Innovation-inspired Change in an Economy and Ecology of Strengths. This paper is a MUST READ for anyone interested in innovation in our association community. In it, they use the phrase "words make worlds." We often attempt to think innovatively while not recognizing the common terminology we use can work to block us in. This series of posts will break from my normal format and is dedicated to asking a single question. How can we change our language and think differently about the work we do?)

Associations have value. Sociologically speaking, the deeply rooted human need to associate is not doomed to irrelevance. Humans will always have a need to socialize with their peers and to develop a sense of shared personal identity through our occupations, hobbies or interests. In fact, associations -- in various forms -- have actually been in existence far longer than the modern form of capitalism. We need not fear that our corporate cousins will provide a better model for the future and rob us of our purpose. We are apples, they are oranges.

The more we attempt to mirror our cousins, the more we water down what we really are. If we adopt the exact language, vocabulary and processes more suited to that environment, we may marginalize ourselves and miss the opportunity to harness and unleash our own life-altering potential. That is not to say that we should ignore or dismiss some of the excellent thinking coming from the corporate side. In fact, several key pieces of that thinking are used as inspiration in this post. However, we need to blend, adapt and intelligently apply those principles to our own association environment. One of the key items we may need to redefine is how we use the term "strategic planning."

According to David Cooperrider, the deficit perspective (reviewing the problems you face as an organization) is not the place to start when looking at your strategic environment. The place to start is to ask a simple question - what is it that gives this living system life? Our associations are living, breathing, ecological systems made up of individuals who are linked by a common purpose and shared identity. If you think about it, most of the management theory we have been exposed to is focused on "diagnosis" and "repair." It's a 19th century, assembly line mentality and it's been so ingrained in us that we feel it is natural and "right."

Deficit thinking traces its roots back to Freudian principles that were extended onto organizations. Chiefly, the principle that humans are inherently flawed and can be “fixed” and if organizations are composed of humans they can be “fixed” too. The trouble is, humans aren’t machines. Instead of the continual "fix the problem" approach, we need to take into account that living, ecological systems are focused on producing a "way of life," and are harder to predict and control than assembly line systems focused on producing a "product." Strategic planning systems built for one arena don’t necessarily work in the other.

Strategic planning is a bedrock concept for most associations. Many associations have greatly benefitted from using strategic planning processes that have contributed to the creation of many positive programs. But in five or ten years, traditional strategic planning processes will not be enough to get associations where they need to be. We will not hit the highest level of performance using older planning mechanisms.

How do I know that? Because most of us have accepted the fact that three to five year strategic plans are a thing of the past. Also, they were inherently focused on incremental improvement, not creating large leaps in innovation. The complexity of our environment continues to outstrip planning principles we believed immutable only ten years ago. Creating powerful, positive visions and adapting as necessary to move toward their fulfillment is the way of the future. In my opinion, our strategic planning processes must evolve. Perhaps we can blend the best of Jim Collins (core purpose, core values and envisioned future) with principles included in design thinking and become focused on cultivation of purpose instead.

Design thinking, as explained by Tim Brown of IDEO, includes a human-centered starting point, collaborative and multidisciplinary approach and rapid prototyping to develop, refine and implement solutions. Instead of the Board making wild guesses as to what the members want in an annual strategic planning retreat, perhaps we use human centered design and begin with the member-citizen instead. Then we could use ongoing inclusive processes with member input, beta testing, rolling solutions and then refining or starting over. In this way, we can get much closer to fulfilling the needs of the system at its roots than if we used a traditional annual dart-board-esque strategic planning process.

Let’s consider this metaphor. If you look at your yard, you understand the basic way it works, how the grass and trees grow and what tools you need to have on hand in order to cultivate and shape your environment. You can sit down once per year and plan out everything you are going to do to the yard, assign areas of the yard to committees who develop recommendations and agonize over the cost of fertilizer. But in the meantime, grass is jumping the nice concrete barriers, weeds invade, some plants thrive and some plants die for what seems like no reason at all. All of these unpredictable elements impact your “strategic plan” for what the yard was supposed to look like and everything that doesn’t fit the plan begins to look like a problem instead of an opportunity.

Cultivation is different. It starts with a vision of what the yard could be like and then depends on a constant growth mindset and careful tending to maximize and minimize the potential that exists within the system. Maybe you decide defending the concrete barrier is too much trouble and that area should go back to a natural state. Maybe when you see what plants are thriving, you shift your energy to supporting more of those.

Social systems behave in much the same way. There are basic rules within any social system but humans jump the barriers time and again. People are unpredictable and messy. If all we do is focus on keeping people behind the concrete barriers and stomping on everything that looks like a weed, we miss the rest of the beauty around us. If we only develop strategy for our landscape once per year we won’t get the results we actually want.

Our ability to function as platforms for change is both a gift and a curse. Let's stop for a moment the next time we say, "strategic operating environment" and change those words to “cultivating our purpose.” Instead of defaulting to a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) let's move to a SOAR analysis (strengths, opportunities, aspirations and resources). With one simple switch on how we frame our environment, we can begin to concentrate more on what's good about our situation and less on the "problems that need fixing."

Then let’s imagine augmenting our quantitative data gathering with more qualitative analysis such as ethnographic observational research. Then imagine brainstorming new solutions from the ground up instead of coming up with to-do lists to assign to staff and volunteers. Instead of "tactics," focus on outcomes. Instead of "planning" a year, shape it instead. We aren't charting a course to a "known" destination. We are continually sculpting and molding our environment in order to advance our interests. What if the metaphor for strategy becomes less of a military operation, with tactics and objectives, and becomes a potter's wheel instead? Where we shape and mold the clay to make it useful for ourselves and our member-citizens?

If we see members as citizens, and governing structures as stewardship, it is a natural extension to change strategic planning to cultivation instead. If our board room is the "people's house," what kinds of gardens, and fun spaces do we have to create a memorable experience for our people? What can we share? Where should we plan to travel as a group? Can we be satisfied with the house as it is, or do we need to move to a new one?

By using core purpose, core values and envisioned future we build the shared understanding of who we are and why we are there. By incorporating a continual cultivation loop we can sculpt and mold a future filled with beauty and promise. With our shared language and our aspirations to be the best humans we can be, we have the grand opportunity to literally design our own future.


  1. Another great post, Shelly! One other point to add about the difference between "cultivation" and "planning." Cultivation is a lot more work--but it's the kind of work that's more likley to engage a group of leaders who are looking to Make a Difference. That's good for getting current Board members to take ownership, and for recruiting new ones with the right mindset.

  2. Thanks for the comment Eric. I agree with you that the intentional pursuit of meaning certainly helps with engagement. It's a mindset for sure.



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