Moving through the Mess: Stories of HSD Planning

You don't just have a story - you're a story in the making, and you never know what the next chapter's going to be. That's what makes it exciting.
                                                                                    Dan Millman

We had a great time in Johannesburg last week diving into Adaptive Action Labs about planning and managing change in complexity. In each of the two-day sessions, people explored the WHAT? SO WHAT? and NOW WHAT? of their own wicked issues. While they found their own “next wise actions,” they were hungry for stories of others’ emergent practice. I spent some time sharing my tales of transformation with them. Since they found it so helpful, I thought I would share a few stories with you about how HSD has informed and transformed planning for ourselves and our clients.

The Process Is the Plan

The introduction of the Affordable Care Act was a major turning point for health care in the USA. Regardless of what has happened since, it set conditions for massive self-organizing and re-organizing across the country. Every institution and every locale had its own unique challenges and opportunities, while they all dealt with radical changes in regulations and resources at the national level.

Before the Act was passed, the whole industry was caught in the throes of massive uncertainty. In the middle of this turmoil, Sue, a long-time client called and asked for help with creating a strategic plan. She was the CEO of a health insurance plan that was run by the county for low-income and hard-to-cover individuals and families. Her board and executive team were uneasy with the uncertainty and looked to her for a strategic plan to show them “the way.” Of course, at that point in the process, there was “no way” to see “a way.” I asked Sue what she wanted from a strategic plan, and she was very clear: She wanted to prepare herself and her organization for the future.  Clearly a traditional strategic plan would not do that, but what would?

Together we stepped into Adaptive Action and realized that what they needed was Strategic Adaptive Action. They needed to explore:

WHAT? See patterns in the current situation and changes as they emerged.

SO WHAT? Understand implications of the situation for her organization and her clients.

NOW WHAT? Respond with agile action to avoid risks and harvest benefits as the system stabilized.

We designed a strategic planning process for her that included four levels of Adaptive Action:

  • An Expert Panel, including invited guests from multiple roles and perspectives across the system, met quarterly to provide insights into how the larger system was creating and responding to changes.
  • A Leadership Panel, made up of her board and executive team, met monthly to review data about demand, supply, and performance across the organization.
  • An Adaptive Strategy Panel, including staff from across functions and levels in the organization, met weekly to share news and engage in collective problem solving as issues arose.
  • Some of her operational groups established Action Teams, who would meet for a 15-minute stand-up meeting every day to share news and plan for short-term responses.

All of these meetings were structured as Adaptive Action cycles:

WHAT have you noticed?

SO WHAT are the implications?

NOW WHAT are our next wise actions to respond?

Every session ended with a final question: Are we ready to plan strategies and tactics for the long term? Over time, as the landscape became clearer, Sue’s organization was poised to respond to the changing environment and eventually settled into a more-or-less standard planning cycle.

Network of Networks

Everyone wants to prevent child abuse and neglect, but few agree on how it should be done. In the USA, public and private entities address this need. Neighborhood, municipal, state, regional, and federal agencies put plans into action. Faith communities, parenting groups, universities, and social service NGOs all focus on protecting children from harm.

While you might think of this system as “self-organizing,” it certainly is not self-organized. Potential partners compete for funds, and parallel services are often redundant or badly coordinated. A federal agency, which funded a diverse collection of these entities, wanted to create a more coherent and viable system of care across the country. They were careful, however, not to interfere with the energy and commitment of existing groups. Three years before, they had supported a traditional governance structure with memos of understanding, decision-making bodies, and clear lines of accountability. This structure required significant time and energy to design and implement, but it didn’t survive long. Few institutions were willing or able to absorb the cost of such a complicated and centralized solution.

The federal agency asked us to help them develop a more agile and efficient collaborative planning process. Our first step was to understand the current patterns of individual and collective action, so we interviewed 20 diverse organizations across the country. We were looking for a plan that would set conditions for a more coherent self-organizing body to emerge. The interviews provided many clues, as we listened through the filter of the CDE Model of Conditions for Self-Organizing in Human Systems.

First, many people wished for, but never expected to have, a shared vision. They believed that a vision could bind people together, but also leave them free to engage in their diverse approaches and services. A vision would provide a container to hold the diverse agents together.

Second, we saw a commitment to projects with clear goals, short-term objectives, committed resources, and clear roles and responsibilities. Across the country, every organization used projects to structure their work. Shared projects would focus diverse groups on differences that made a difference across organization and geographical boundaries.

Third, it became clear that local connections and relationships were weaker than those at the national level. Organizations would engage with state and federal partners when they were invited and/or funded, but local connections were not rewarded. So, these cash-starved organizations had little connection with their local neighbors and potential partners.  Networking at the local level could provide the exchanges that support self-organizing processes.

Working with the federal agency, we created a plan that provided these three conditions and established the context in which a more coherent system could emerge. The resulting Network of Networks led to more coherence, and it also supported a variety of other, unintended, consequences.

The Un-Strategic Plan or the Strategic Un-Plan

A regional family foundation invested in a wide variety of programs and projects. Over the years, as family members developed interests, their philanthropic resources followed. Administrative supports and policies had evolved to meet these diverse needs as well, so the culture was one of autonomy and local adaptation. New leadership—president of the foundation and a chair of the board—realized that a more coherent culture would serve the foundation and its grantees well. On the other hand, no one was interested in a rapid or rigid centralization of power and decision making.

The president called us and said, “We need a shared strategy and a more coherent plan, but we do not want a traditional strategic plan. What are our options?” Working with the board, executives, staff, and grantees, we began to see fundamental patterns that were shared across programs. Even though the programs were often unaware of and not interested in those connections, we realized they set a framework for collective understanding, identity, and action. On the basis of these patterns, we worked with their staff to create a Strategic Framework.

The Strategic Framework included a vision statement, a list of shared values, simple rules, and short descriptions of how each program area manifested this shared identity. The Framework was loose enough to allow for traditional variation, but it was also tight enough to encourage shared meaning making and action. Over the years, the Strategic Framework has been revised, as the foundation matured and moved toward more collaborative action. It is now time for the next revision, and we expect that a more traditional strategic plan will finally be more “fit for function.”

What about Your Adaptive Planning Story?

In the last week of April, we will offer an online learning opportunity—Planning and Adaptive Action: Build Adaptive Capacity. In this lab you will learn how to use HSD-based models and methods to help you change your assumptions about planning and build the capacity in your system to plan in uncertainty. Please join us for this event to learn new insights and skills that move beyond traditional assumptions into adaptive capacity for planning in uncertain times.

Join a global network of learning about HSD!

As a member of the network, you will receive weekly notices of events, opportunities, and links to blogs and other learning opportunities. Additionally, you will have the option to unsubscribe at any point, should you decide to do so.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.