• Sherry P. Johnson

We've Had It with Strategic Planning

A Meditation
Broken terra cotta pottery surrounded by a crumbling limestone wall, a petrifying tree limb, and strawberry vines.

In his book, How Change Happens, Duncan Green asserts, "Activists spend much more energy talking about their own strategy than about the wider world--the dynamic context--that should determine their intervention."


On the other hand, "Viewing a theory of change as a compass, not a map--a dynamic process, rather than a static document--allows for assumptions to be regularly challenged and updated. It encourages a greater focus on learning through a continual back and forth between emerging evidence from the changing, local context and the theory on which the program is based."

I read Green's brilliant work in 2018 and finally started writing this very blog the first week of March 2020. That work was prescient. We now face a nonprofit sector whose leaders desperately want to re-set their strategy, basing that work on a renewed vision for the future… Only to realize the future is far too murky to do what consultants like me used to facilitate. For two years we've been plunged into a time of Emergent Strategy, a concept that blossomed in community-organizing culture and was given full voice in adrienne maree brown's 2017 seminal work. Brown's current definition: "Emergent strategy is the way we generate and reshape complex systems and patterns with relatively simple interactions." Simple? The very word should convict anyone involved in the pre-2020, mechanistic world of strategic planning.


In our goal-directed, pragmatic, objectifying culture, visioning is often treated as sacred. At best, it's a feel-good exercise that helps people think holistically. At worst, it's a way to manipulate emotion and achieve a cheap sense of group cohesion. Either way, it often becomes yet another external demand that demotivates people over time. In her book 7 Rules for Positive Productive Change, Esther Derby quips, "A vision paints a picture of a desired future. It doesn't provide information about the problems that must be solved to achieve it or about the potential of the current system. Change is not really a journey of 1,000 steps toward a different, more desirable location. Organizations don't go anywhere." The very concept of a vision--static and goal-focused--is the opposite of the adaptive evolution that humans and organizations need. The danger of even a "practical vision" is that it's a bunch of "nice things we could do" in absence of any surprises. Derby, Brown, and other members of the complexity community--Chris Corrigan, Cynthia Kurtz, Carolyn Camman, Dave Snowden, Laurie Webster, and more--have broken me open over what I used to facilitate. Setting 3-5-year visions? Based on blithe consensus? Only lightly rooted in organizational context? Linear planning without iterative structures or parallel experiments? I mean sure, at least ToP has people confront their contradictory behavior patterns, but then it moves organizations right back into the ordered, predictable realm when doing strategy, as if life were some sort of football game--complete with masc-gendered assumptions about how things change. We think, If we can just tackle what's blocking us, we can get where we want to go. Keep moving forward! We must have learned in the last 3 years that this stuff no longer serves us. Maybe it never did. What was borne out of participatory processes may have looked like democratization of strategy. But it still trapped us in a world of heroism, patriarchy, and perpetuity--where organizations must be treated like a set of problems that must be solved, machines that must be tuned, environments that must be grown perpetually--not living, breathing systems that shape and reshape themselves around whatever we try to impose upon them...where things are born, live, decline, and die so that new things can be continually reborn. ...So I've opened up the floodgates of my mind here. Named all those assumptions that aren't working for me anymore. So what good are planning retreats, then? I would say they are even more important under a complex-adaptive worldview. Organizations must regroup regularly--more often than every 3-5 years. To move in a complex human system, we need ways to regularly read the terrain, reset our assumptions, and build our relational network, so that we are freer and more connected to better respond to conditions on the ground.


But are those "just structured enough" structures formed yet? Haha! Would any facilitative structure ever meet every context? Likely not. But skilled facilitators must figure out more structures that can be shaped and reshaped, that can breathe with organizations so they can better answer the questions, "Who have we been? Who are we becoming together? What are the minimum appropriate constraints that will shape that development within our context?" Here's to hoping we can keep our creativity flowing to honor what humans need.

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