Strategic Frameworks: Plan at the Speed of Change

Today you need a planning process that is agile and responsive. It has to account for the challenges of complexity and uncertainty you and your organization face.

  • Your system is buffeted by social, economic, political, and cultural forces that vie for attention and action.
  • You and your colleagues function in a world of rich diversity that offers depth of options and opportunities, along with new challenges.
  • The complexity of challenges limits your ability to connect cause and effect in your search for solutions. You cannot track backwards in time to identify what to change. You can’t see into the far future to know how to change.

“This approach to planning may seem radical, but . . . “

Traditional strategic plans are built around long lists of strategies with multiple objectives and tasks. Such a plan locks you into a single understanding of the environment and limited expectations for the future. The strategic plan specifies future action, even when the emergent future is unknown, maybe even unknowable. In your VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world, you cannot afford to let a strategic plan lock you into yesterday’s assumptions. At the HSD Institute, we focus on Adaptive Planning.

We implement the discipline of Adaptive Planning with the Strategic Framework. This approach may seem radical, but we use it for our own planning. Our clients in environment, government, and philanthropy use Strategic Frameworks to guide their adaptive planning for strategy and operations, too. Last week, the McKnight Foundation released its new Strategic Framework. We were privileged to support them in developing it. Their internal project lead called us their midwife!

As you can see, the Strategic Framework is a simple document with big ideas. In two to five pages it holds your key patterns of possibility and performance. Depending on the organization’s history, we might include vision, mission, values, identity statements, videos, diagrams, simple rules, principles, strategic tensions, or any other components that define the institution and the future it desires. These essential elements stay the same over time. On a quarterly basis, strategic projects are defined, tracked, and assessed against the Strategic Framework and the emerging reality of the environment. This provides a planning process that is centered on the core identity of the group and, at the same time, responsive to uncertain and sometimes turbulent conditions.

How do you organize your planning and action so that your entire system can prepare for the future? How can you help them take strategy into action? What would your Strategic Framework include to:

  • Express who you are, as an organization, team, or community
  • Set priorities that inform decision making and action as you respond and adapt to changes, challenges, and new opportunities
  • Build on your whole system’s knowledge, wisdom, creativity, and foresight to support adaptation

A Strategic Framework is a reasonable, adaptive alternative to a traditional strategic plan. It helps you thrive in uncertainty because it captures and responds to the dynamics of complex adaptive human systems. 

Iterative planning and action. Innovation and creativity are difficult to predict and impossible to control. Traditional planning approaches, with long lead times and long horizons, do not fit the rapid and uncertain patterns of active communities. HSD uses Adaptive Action cycles to collect data, build hypotheses, and take action at whatever pace is required. Then we do it again! Some planning cycles take minutes or hours, when the work is urgent, and the information is available. Other cycles require years or decades, as needs and information emerge over time. Each cycle ensures new information, thoughtful reflection, and incisive action. The outcome of each cycle feeds new information into the next one, so that learning and action work together for continual adaptation. Your Strategic Framework is an anchor for each of these cycles to ensure that you stay true to your collective identity and intentions.

Adaptive Consensus. Collaboration requires shared understanding to support cooperative action, but the process of consensus can become a barrier to effective action. We guide groups in what we call Adaptive Consensus. After a robust discussion, when a group appears to have converged on a single solution, we ask the final consensus question, “Is there anyone who cannot live with this decision? If so, what would be necessary for you to live with it?” This approach allows everyone to be heard and provides opportunity and responsibility to be part of the solution. It simplifies group dynamics and moves a process along. It also helps individuals and groups discover better solutions as they integrate minority voices. Your Strategic Framework captures an accurate picture of shared intention, but it does not get your group stuck in details and disagreements. You only include what is agreed to by all, and you use Adaptive Consensus to keep the dialogue moving forward.   

Many levels of change. We know that complex systems function at many different levels at the same time. Individuals, teams, organizations, communities, and governments depend on each other to generate and sustain change. Any strategy that focuses on only one level is sure to fail. With this understanding, HSD projects include the insights and leverage the power of all levels of complex human systems dynamics. Your Strategic Framework is equally useful for individuals, teams, and entire organizations or communities. The patterns at one level inform all other levels, so your Strategic Framework applies at all scales of decision and action.  

Integration of operations and strategy. Limited resources and urgent changes mean most organizations sacrifice strategy for urgent operational issues. Strategic Frameworks speak to both. Individuals, teams, and business units apply the Framework in their contexts and generate operational plans that align with its patterns. Day-to-day assessment, measurement, and performance, then, are easily integrated with the overall systemic strategic intentions and identity.    

Can you imagine how your Strategic Framework could inform collaborative strategic action for your teams and organizations? Can you see how it would support decision making for long-term strategy as well as concrete operational tactics? What would your Strategic Framework include? Email us at if you want to see more examples or talk about how a Strategic Framework could help your organization prepare for your uncertain future.

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