Actionable and Adaptable Program Strategy

by MAG with Lindsey O-Pries

Developing program strategy and plans when conditions are constantly changing in unpredictable ways or when people disagree about what to do can be a real headache. When the context is this complex, traditional methods of program planning – like traditional methods for strategic planning – can come up short. In recognition of this, Management Assistance Group is experimenting, along with our colleagues and clients, with different methods for planning when you can’t predict what tomorrow will bring.

Here we share a case story of how we partnered with a national network of service delivery and advocacy groups to create an actionable program strategy that could flex in the face of complexity.


Starting anew: a different type of program plan

The need for an actionable and adaptable program plan emerged as the national network and MAG partnered to develop a new strategy and theory of change for its member support program. This new strategy was grounded in movement building and developing each network members’ power as an advocate in order to support the network’s capacity for making change on some of today’s most complex and intractable problems.

Lindsey O-Pries managed the member support program.  She wanted to make this new strategy actionable in order to guide the day-to-day decisions of the program while enabling her team to be nimble in making decisions. She also sought a plan that would allow the group to hold team members accountable in the midst of rapid and unpredictable change.

The challenge was adaptive capacity – i.e., prioritizing goals, creating manageable workloads, and knowing when to say yes or no.
— Member Support Manager

We worked with Lindsey to co-create a different type of program plan that could be actionable and adaptable. Together we used the following three-step process, grounded in complexity theory and the mindsets needed to work in complex systems, to develop the plan:

  1. Get clear about what work is simple, complicated, and complex
  2. Identify patterns that either advance or hinder the results you are trying to achieve
  3. Identify simple rules, experiments, and strange attractors to influence these patterns


1. Get clear about what work is simple, complicated, and complex

It was easy to spend a lot of time on the complex aspects of my job because that’s more fun and challenging. Going through this training allowed me to compartmentalize the work more, which allowed space for it all.
— Member Support Manager

While the national network’s context was complex, not all of their work was complex. Getting clear about what work was actually complex enabled member support to refocus time and energy on what mattered.

We began with a workshop on complexity based on David Snowden’s Cynefin Framework.  What is complexity?  How does complexity affect decision-making? Is your work complex, complicated, or simple? (There’s also chaos, but that didn’t come up in this case.) The workshop helped to understand the difference between these categories.

We then worked with Lindsey to sort out which parts of the member support program fit into each category:

  • Simple work. Simple doesn’t mean easy; rather, it means that there are repeatable ways to do the work. Things like logistics for conferences fit into this category.
  • Complicated work. Expertise, research and analysis, or conflict resolution may help to find the most effective approach. Things like cost-sharing agreements with members fell into this category.
  • Complex work. There is no best path forward; instead, solutions emerge by experimenting, learning, and adapting. We identified key components of the work that were complex including: fostering national-member relationships, strengthening member-to-member relationships, managing new opportunities and crises, and supporting new member groups.
It was good to see that not everything was complex. We could ask, ‘How do we do it’ [just for the part of our work that was complex].
— Deputy Director

We knew that mastering the simple work would increase member support’s ability to focus on these key pieces of complex work. It was important to realize that work that is simple is important and we had to make sure there was space for it. We also discussed how to simplify any work that was complicated. For this work, we could create clear routines or best practices with standard results. We could also use traditional work plans to manage it. Or, we could delegate this work to others to free up the manager’s time for more complex work. 

Understanding what work was simple, complicated, or complex, and then mastering the simple work, enabled the team to be nimble and balanced, which also led to a less overworked and overcommitted team.
 

2. Identify patterns that either advance or hinder the results you are trying to achieve

We then focused our program planning on the areas of work we had identified as the most complex -- fostering national-member partnerships, strengthening member-to-member relationships, managing new opportunities and crises, and supporting new member groups. We started by defining each of these areas more deeply. We asked questions such as: What is in this bucket of work, what makes it complex, and what do we want to see change?

For each of these areas, we then reflected on the work so far in order to identify patterns that were advancing or hindering the change we wanted to see.

Advancing patterns

We began by thinking about bright spots or positive deviants that represented the direction of change we wanted to see. We talked about what it meant to be a bright spot. We asked ourselves, what combination of contextual conditions, relationships, processes, and activities were generating the kinds of results the member support program wanted to achieve? We considered the characteristics, qualities, and prior interactions that seemed unique to these bright spots. 

 

Example of an Advancing Pattern

When discussing the complex work of fostering national-member relationships, we uncovered a variety of advancing patterns. We learned that the quality of relationship was important: when it was one-on-one, in-person, and not transactional, the national-member relationships were stronger.  We saw that social media is an important part of relationships with younger people.  We also discovered that the amount of time spent was not a consistent pattern; that is, time and quality of relationship were not connected like we had assumed. 

Hindering patterns

We also thought about the opposite: cases that we wanted to avoid or reduce. We asked what combination of factors was causing negative results or preventing the program from achieving the results it wanted? We identified the characteristics, qualities, contextual factors, or other barriers that were getting in the way. If there were attributes in common with the bright spots, we asked why these cases did not become bright spots.

Based on this conversation, we discovered advancing and hindering patterns that were true across multiple cases. Identifying these patterns enabled member support to understand the nuances about what was happening and why and challenge assumptions about the work. 

 

3. Identify simple rules, experiments, and strange attractors to influence these patterns

Once we understood the patterns, we could learn how to influence them. We choose three strategies for enabling member support to proactively accelerate the change that we wanted to see: identifying simple rules, experiments, and strange attractors.


Simple Rules

Simple rules are principles that we could follow on a day-to-day basis as we made choices about what to do. We identified the most important patterns for advancing or hindering the change we wanted to see. We then asked what member support could do to catalyze advancing patterns and/or disrupt hindering patterns.

“The simple rules were very helpful.  I feel more comfortable with thinking this way before making big decisions.” – National Network Staff Member

Some examples of simple rules are:

  • Move relationships from transactional to transformational.
  • See the member as a whole – including hidden issues - before moving forward with a crisis or opportunity.


Experiments

We had good ideas about how member support could accelerate change based on observations of past and current patterns.  Because conditions are constantly changing, we couldn’t be sure that what we had learned was relevant to what was happening today.  Experiments help to test the simple rules today.  Will they make a difference in catalyzing advancing patterns or disrupting hindering patterns? Moreover, the member support team was sometimes hesitant to try new things.  Experiments helped the group overcome resistance to change and innovate.

Some experiments we came up with included: a listserv or social media conversation to build member-to-member relationships; and ways to say no to common requests while still being supportive and responsive.

“I believe that using experiments made people feel more comfortable with trying something and knowing they might fail.  This is a hard mindset shift that has made us more nimble and adventurous. We are more okay with failure and being thoughtful to learn from it. At this point, we are all working on big, scary experiments all the time and it is exciting and leading to innovative work.” – National Network Staff Member


Strange Attractors

We thought about things that member support was already doing that supported the type of change we wanted to see.  How could we amplify these things by doing more of them, building on them, or expanding their reach?  For example, we discussed leveraging an existing annual event for people to come together for even more intentional relationship building.

As a side benefit of this conversation, we also identified things member support was doing that the team could stop, reduce, or outsource.  It was a natural result of thinking about how to make room for simple rules, experiments, and strange attractors.
 

Results that matter

Traditional program planning results in a set of fixed strategies with complementary tactics and success metrics. Actionable program strategy for a complex context results in a set of simple rules, experiments, and existing activities (strange attractors) to guide day-to-day work and decision-making. It helps to clarify roles and decision-making authority across the organization. Finally, it incorporates regular learning and reflective conversations in order to adapt the strategy as things emerge.

Now, the network’s member support program can flex as conditions change or new things are learned.

“Previously, we were reactive and the long-term goals were unclear.  Now, I have ideas for what we will be doing.  We are good at saying what we have in the pipeline and what different choices mean.” – National Network Staff Member

Most important was the impact on the member support team and the national network’s members.  It gave the whole team a shared language to talk about their work processes. Staff has taken more responsibility for the simple buckets of work. Leaders with positional authority have freed up their time and have more power and confidence to make decisions with others quickly. Members experience faster responses from the network and also have more time to do their work. 

Program planning when you are working in complexity doesn’t need to be a headache. Actionable and adaptable program strategy can be a useful process that creates clarity, flexibility, and efficiency on your team, making the work more exciting and minimizing the tendency towards overwork and over-commitment. To do this type of planning, it can be helpful to take a quick dive into complexity theory in order to understand why your current context is so challenging. This can help you determine what work is really complex, and master your simple and complicated work so that you can really focus on the complex. Once you are clear on the complex work, you can identify patterns that are either hindering or advancing that work. Finally, employing simple rules, identifying experiments, and leveraging strange attractors are helpful strategies for influencing the patterns and bringing about the change you want to see.

“The process took time, capacity, and money. Even though it was hard, we would do it again in a heartbeat. It was worth it because it is changing how we work now.”- National Network Staff Member

 

Image by Danielle Buma | CC BY 2.0