Nature has a lot to teach us about how change can disappear into the ecosystem.
In human organizations, we have this habit of layering change on top of the operating system. For example, strategic plans create new systems to ensure alignment between employee actions and the goals of the plan. We incorporate strategic goals into departmental plans, add them to performance reviews, and have people who make sure a goal is met. These strategies are layered on top of daily responsibilities of an employee or the organization. This can cause people to view strategic planning as an add-on, not something that is deeply incorporated into the daily work.
I once had a staff member say that writing up the section on strategic plans on her performance review was an act of creative writing. She knew something had to be said to show her alignment with the goals, but she didn’t see the relevance of the strategic plan to her work.
This is just one symptom of how strategic planning isn’t following nature’s design. If nature had a strategic plan, she would design strategy to disappear into the ongoing living system. This concept may be hard to grasp, but what if we mainstreamed strategic thinking into the organization so it lives (like DNA) in everyone who works in the organization? What would that look like?
Understanding Strategic Thinking in Nature
The first thing we would do is to help everyone understand why the organization’s’ strategic goals matter to them as individuals, teams, departments, and as an organization. A living system only pays attention to what matters to them here and now. If this question isn’t answered, we shouldn’t be surprised if people don’t relate to, support, or contribute to the strategic plan.
Secondly, living systems only support solutions that they help to create. If a small group of people frames a strategic plan (like boards members and senior staff) the employees won’t support the solution without supervision. This becomes both time-consuming and requires staff, time, attention, and money.
What Skills Help a Strategy Disappear into an Organization’s DNA?
How can we mainstream strategic thinking in our employees? One way is to involve them in environmental scanning that is done as a precursor to developing a strategic plan. When we gather a group of employees who are distributed throughout the organization, we invite new people into the strategic planning process.
Living systems evolve with information. Having more people (not outsourcing) the environmental scanning process is a powerful way to inject new information at multiple levels of the organization. This serves two purposes. First, it shows employees why key strategies matter. It involves them in strategy development and ties them to the goals in an authentic way. The second purpose is that it is an efficient way to develop strategic thinking capacity. If individuals have the capacity to think strategically, they can self-organize around strategy and apply observations and experience in a strategic way.
You can also dissolve strategic planning into an organization by developing strategic screens that staff members use as a lens to frame their day-to-day actions, experiences, and decisions. A strategic screen is formed with 2-3 simple questions that employees can carry in their head. They use these questions to shape their choices and actions.
One example of a strategic screen is How can this task or initiative be designed to build leadership capacity in our staff as a by-product of the way we do our work? It was informed by a company’s goal of strengthening distributive leadership throughout the organization. Another example was Are we modeling the culture we want to create? If not, how might we shift our ways of working to reflect the culture we want? The question was attached to the goal of developing a more adaptive and innovative culture.
This is a subtle and powerful way that strategic planning can be embedded into a living system in a way that allows it to live within the DNA of the system. Usually, we spend effort and money to layer the plan on top of day-to-day work. We don’t acknowledge that implementing strategy can conflict with getting our work done. When we approach the way we develop and implement strategies differently, accomplishing strategy becomes part of the way we do our daily work, not an addition to it.
Dr. Kathleen E. Allen writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership that is based on lessons from nature and living systems. She is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (2018) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. You can sign up for her blog on her website: www.kathleenallen.net