Plan in Uncertainty: A Case for Strategic Adaptive Action

“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.” 
                                                              ― J.R.R. TolkienThe Hobbit

Planning seems to be an eternal challenge. At home, in the community, and at work, you plan for the day, for the month, and for long-range priorities. You plan activities. You plan budgets. You plan retirements. You plan for events that are so tightly controlled that there’s no room for a misstep. You plan for loosely organized schedules that are built on estimates, guesses, and a reliance on being “close enough.”

In the latter half of the last century, corporations, NGOs, and communities found an answer to organizational and corporate planning: strategic planning. Individuals and groups spent hours and days and reams of paper developing strategic plans. Whole careers (mine included) were dedicated to supporting people to create and implement strategic plans. If they could just get the pieces defined, actions named, and outcomes measured, they would be on the road to high quality goods and services.

And those plans worked—until they didn’t.

What happened? Why wasn’t strategic planning enough? Consider your own most difficult planning challenge. Why is it that identifying and planning for the individual parts just does not work in the long run? Why is it that traditional ways of planning strategically just can’t work over time and space in complex systems?  In HSD, we believe that traditional strategic planning was grounded in three assumptions that have proven to be fatal flaws. Consider your own current complex planning challenge as you reflect on these assumptions.

Fatal Assumption #1:  In human systems, the whole is the sum of the parts. In HSD we have learned that in any complex system—including human systems—the whole is more than the sum of the parts. The “trick” of good planning is to account for that fact. Complex systems are open to multiple forces from their environments and from their own internal landscapes. These forces—many of them unknown, unpredictable, and uncontrollable—increase complexity in human systems. They mean that you can never gain complete consensus or control all aspects of the work you do. You cannot predict or control the future. You cannot plan for all contingencies. It means that the system you are working on is greater than the sum of its parts, and your planning has to be responsive and timely enough to help you respond and move forward, even in the face of shifting challenges.

In your own challenge, consider the multiple forces that you must face:

  • Economic forces make markets unpredictable and buying power inconstant.
  • Social forces drive what is hip and what’s not, who is talking to whom at multiple scales, and what’s in style and what’s not.
  • Political forces amplify differences to divide people, rather than to encourage collaborative problem solving and decision making.
  • Internal forces drive the challenges you face. Union contracts; performance history; visions for future success, current, past, and future relationships; and other unpredictable factors shape your reality every day.

Your planning has to build system-wide resilience so that you can anticipate, understand, and adapt to forces as they emerge and shift.

Fatal Assumption #2:  You can identify all the parts of the system that make a difference, define measures that reflect the performance of each of those differences, and track the progress of the whole. In HSD, we know that in any complex system there are more differences than can be counted, and that the importance of those differences may depend on a broad range of variables. Who is looking at the system at any given time? Who is being served by the system in a particular area? Where does an individual or group stand in the system? What differences are being influenced by external forces? Which differences are internally focused? Complex systems are highly diverse at all scales. That means that there is no way to account adequately for that many variables. It means that planning must be flexible and adaptable enough to address multiple needs at multiple scales of your system, even as it is specific enough to guide decisions locally.

In your own challenge, consider the diversity you must account for:

  • Each employee, customer, client, and board member has a unique story that shapes engagement with the system and with each other.
  • Employee and client pools are made up of Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y, Millennials, and Gen Z—to say nothing of babies, children, “tweens”, and adolescents. Each group brings its shared cultural and social expectations.
  • Differences in skills and knowledge, engagement, authority, and responsibility divide your system—no matter how large or how small—into functional parts that take on different roles and tasks.
  • Day-to-day differences in the external environment or the internal landscape trigger different responses: surprise, tension, conflict, joy, confusion, etc.

Your planning has to be sensitive to multiple differences and adaptable to accommodate the range of demands your system faces.

Fatal Assumption #3:  You can know enough about today to predict the future and control your system’s response to that future. In HSD, we recognize that complex systems are nonlinear and interdependent. There is no single root cause to anything. Because human systems are open to multiple forces, there is no way to predict the exact path of evolution of any event, idea, or experience. When you deal with complexity of a system, you can never know enough about history to be able to predict the future with any degree of precision. Because human systems are so diverse, there is no way to codify enough rules, set clear enough expectations, or create measures that are specific enough to be able to control individual or group performance over time. When you can neither predict nor control your complex system, the best your planning can do is 1) set overarching priorities and direction; 2) establish boundaries and parameters of expectations; and 3) ensure available resources fit system needs.

In your own challenge, consider the interdependencies you must account for:

  • Employees contribute to the work of the whole system, based on their past history, their current engagement, and their understanding of the future. Their performance depends on how well they understand their unique role in making decisions and taking action that makes the most of their contribution.
  • Your board asks for finite measures for growth and performance. Engaging with them instead around priorities, parameters, and expectations helps them set the context employees need to do their best work. You can still provide data about the growth and performance of the system, and those measures have greater meaning in the overall, ongoing work of the system.
  • It is impossible to codify every single contingency of behavior, decision making, and action. Simple rules establish clear and appropriate boundaries that allow for responsive and productive action.
  • When all you are doing to predict and control quits working, you feel stuck. Understanding similarities, differences, and possibilities of your complex system helps you see patterns you can shift, rather than problems you cannot solve.

Your planning has to be bounded by clear priorities and expectations, and then populated with opportunities for individual and group participation and contribution. This provides both the clarity and flexibility that enables the system to find its greatest fitness in a changing and unpredictable landscape.

In HSD we have been working with people around the globe to learn to use Adaptive Action as their chosen approach to planning. They have used the three simple questions of Adaptive Action is an alternative to strategic planning. That shift allows them to plan for and take action in the near and far horizons.

  • What is happening in your system now?
    (See the patterns and possibilities in your system)
  • So what does that mean to its functioning now and in the future?
    (Understand the implications of those patterns and possibilities)
  • Now what wise action can you take to move forward?
    (Take your next wise action and move into the next iteration)

Adaptive Action helps you deal with the multiple forces you face. It provides a way for you to account for the many differences in your system. It shapes a path to move forward into a future you can’t predict or control.

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