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17 June 2014

Emergent strategy

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

Last week the four of us Cultivating Leadership partners got together in front of a roaring fire at Keith’s house to set our direction and consider our strategy for our next chapter. We have grown a lot this last year and we are in the last stages of publishing our next book which might change the landscape for us a little more. Add to that Carolyn’s move back to the US a year ago and my health challenges (I’m officially out of chemotherapy starting yesterday!) and you get a tumbling and changing firm. We know that we’re in a complex space because we have an unpredictable future, so we knew that we needed a new kind of strategy to meet our needs.

The Stanford Social Innovation Review has an article this month called “Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World” by John Kania, Mark Kramer, and Patty Russell. While we are not a philanthropic organisation, we value their three ingredients of emergent strategy: co-creating strategy, working positive and negative attractors, and improving system fitness. It’s clear how some of these features work in the murky and interdependent world of philanthropy, but slightly less clear how a little firm like ours should respond to some of these calls. I’ll take them backwards, from the most to the least familiar.

Improving system fitness. Here is our home base. In our firm, built on principles of adult development and relationships and grounded in theories of complexity, we pay lots of attention to what Kania, Kramer, and Russell emphasize as the “fitness to adapt to the changing circumstances and the end goal.” Our work with clients and associates—and with our own individual practice—is to stretch out into new spaces, to find and live into our growth edge, and to offer each other feedback so that we can be our biggest selves. We do not always succeed in this, but we just about never forget to try.

Working positive and negative attractors. Here too we’re in familiar territory. Kania, Kramer, and Russell talk about “patterns of momentum” where we can identify how the energy is moving through the system. We see the ways my first book acts as an attractor for some clients. Mostly, though, our attractors are our relationships—created perhaps by the book or by a speech one of us has given or a conversation we had with someone over a coffee. These relationships, nurtured often over years and for the sake of the relationship rather than the sake of developing new work, translate in their own time into interesting and innovative projects we create alongside our clients. This relationship-based approach is slow, but in our searching for patterns, we found that it is so far the strongest attractor we know.

Co-creating strategy. This is the one that is hardest for me to get my head around in our context—and perhaps because of that, the most exciting. Kania, Kramer, and Russell say that because the major social ills philanthropy attempts to serve are influenced by government, NGO, and local actors (among others), the strategy needs to be co-created across many actors. This has got me thinking about the ways many of us, distributed in many different kinds of workplaces, are seeking a growth in the leadership capabilities of leaders around the world. I began to wonder what it would be like to more intentionally co-create a strategy that went far beyond the Cultivating Leadership borders and into other firms like ours, client organisations, universities, governments, etc. We do this a little with our work in the Growth Edge Network, the non-profit global community of practice we began, but I’ve been dreaming about what it would be like to convene conversations about shifting leadership capability with a wider group. What would our collective and emerging strategy be then? Who might want to play with us?

We centre our work on the core question about who we will become next, and we choose a direction rather than a destination as we muse (the article agrees, emphasizing the need for a compass rather than a map). We are grateful for the various folks who are trying to step their way through what it means to act given the complexity and unpredictability of the world right now. Each different way of enacting these ideas helps us discover new approaches and new possibilities to our emerging work. We care deeply about the work we do and about the clients we serve, and we hold out hope that a shift in leadership capacity is one way to make a powerful difference in a struggling world. Anyone out there want to come and play along with us?

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