After all of the work to map intended results from the strategy and learn about the past, present and future environments, what do you do with all of this good information?
The strategy planning process has to integrate the learning and key its focus on the results. The ultimate strategy needs to incorporate three things:
- Long-term overarching approach, so you can appropriately allocate resources.
- Short-term strategies relevant in the current environment to get to the earliest preconditions on your Strategic Roadmap.
- Ongoing strategies to collect information about the environment and take time to reflect and adapt as needed, including leaving additional resources available for adaptation.
The meeting where you design your adaptive strategy typically begins with the Strategic Roadmap front and center along with easily accessible information from the various other activities you’ve undertaken. You then take time to clarify the road ahead – which elements of the roadmap are your priorities, and which make more sense for others to tackle or for your group to tackle in future years. In the narrowing process, you can consider things like:
- Which parts of the Strategic Roadmap are the right size for you to address, given your capacity, resources and timeline?
- Which parts of the Strategic Roadmap intersect the most with your current networks and spheres of influence? (informed by Social Network Analysis and/or Influence Mapping)
- Are there parts of the Strategic Roadmap that are fundamental to everything else being possible?
- Are there parts of the Strategic Roadmap that no one else is tackling? (informed by an Environmental Scan)
- Are there parts of the Strategic Roadmap that will not move forward without a more intentional, coordinated effort?
- Are there parts of the Strategic Roadmap that remain relevant across multiple future scenarios? (informed by Scenario Mapping)
Once you have agreed on the strategic focus for your work, you can consider how you would approach the work. For each area on the Strategic Roadmap within your focus, you can:
- Break down the preconditions more fully, e.g. going from all producers meeting food safety requirements to: addressing gaps with reimbursement; producers having the necessary knowledge; and accurate interpretation of food safety regulations.
- Choose to remain vaguer about the smaller changes, under the belief that the partners implementing of your work will know more about what it takes to get to the precondition (a common approach in funding strategies, giving grantees greater flexibility).
With the focus set and a decisions made about how nuanced you want your preconditions to be, the next step is to craft the specific actions you can take.
We like a tool called Before Action Reviews that walk the participants through the process of thinking about the what the result will really look like on the ground when it is achieved, what challenges might be to getting there, what they have learned from past experience, and then (and only then!), what they can do to get to the intended results. During the reflection on challenges and past experience, you can bring in what you’ve learned through forecasting, mapping or other techniques for bringing in new information. This flow keeps the participants focused on the results, rather than diving deep into the how-to of the planning process, but still gives an opportunity to get to specific actions. After Action Reviews provide a structure for learning from what you implemented to identify areas of improvement and opportunities to test what you learned. In this sense, these two processes act as “bookends” so you can be deliberate about preparing for and learning from important activities along the way.
Whether you use these techniques or another process, the important part of this stage of planning is not to get into nitty-gritty details. Do not develop goals, objectives, strategies and tactics! Rather, develop a clear, high-level focus on the preconditions and understanding of what it might take to get there.
- For an understanding of Before and After Action Reviews, Learning in the Thick of It by Marilyn Darling, Charles Parry and Joseph Moore provides a great preview of how to use them. It is for subscribers of the Harvard Business Review only, but you can also access a copy through Fourth Quadrant Partners.
Now that you have a long-term vision and high level plan, it’s time to get into the weeds. You can plan for short-term actions that help achieve the earliest preconditions on your Strategic Roadmap. Unlike planning for the long-term, these might be very specific actions to be taken by defined players within a specific timeframe. Before Action Reviews are equally relevant for shorter term planning. The only difference is the first part – describing your intended result.
By the time you’re done with short-term planning, you have a clear action plan to advance the earliest stages of the Strategic Roadmap and can see the relationship between this work and the long-term road ahead.
In addition to developing high level strategies for the longer-term and specific actions for today, adaptive planning processes also need to plan which tools and processes will facilitate ongoing adaptation in response to learning, changing context, or shifting assumptions.
This typically includes a combination of:
- Ways of gathering information about the results of your work – are you seeing the changes you thought you could influence, how did you contribute to the changes, what didn’t go as expected?
- Ways of gathering information about the environment and testing your assumptions – is a different scenario unfolding, have the networks of organizations shifted over time, what are the reactions stakeholders are having to key events?
- Ways of using the information that is gathered – when do we have key decision points where we can integrate new learning and what type of facilitated dialogue will help us use the information?
- Resources to allocate to changes in plan – what funding, staff time, or other resources have we left available to apply to new strategies that emerge along the way?
This combination prepares the strategy to be intentionally and systematically adaptive, responding to multiple sources of information, applying new resources as needed. The issue of having dedicated resources for supporting adaptation is critical. If you have a strategy that is intended to be adaptive, but all of your resources are allocated to originally planned activities, the adaptation question changes from “What do we need to do to get to our results?” to “What do we need to stop doing, so we can add something else that will help us get to the results?” This second question, while appropriate in many settings, can be paralyzing, particularly when resources are allocated to cover the involvement of outside partners, grantees, staff, etc.