02 July 2020
Posted by: Ed Morrison
Old habits take time to shift. But one trend in business is unmistakable. Traditional approaches to strategy don't work. In turbulent environments, we need new strategy habits.
Let me explain.
As organisations move toward a more volatile world of shifting knowledge and networks, strategic planning has been breaking down. The trend first appeared more than 20 years ago with the advent of the Internet, our first interactive mass medium. The continued acceleration is driven by information and communications technologies. Traditional strategy planning -- slow, deliberate, linear, top-down -- has been left behind.
But what's next?
Developing an Agile Strategy Discipline
Luckily, a small group of strategy practitioners has been working on this problem since the early 1990s. Here are the questions that have framed our work:
- How do we develop strategy when we operate in open, loosely connected networks?
- How do we develop a discipline of simple rules that is lean, replicable and scalable across an organisation?
- How do we embed continuous, frequent learning cycles into a strategy process?
It turns out that open source software development had a lot to teach us.
My journey started in 1993, with a conversation in Singapore with a PhD physicist. He pointed to the importance of simple rules in complex systems. He suggested I learn from open source software development. Through the 1990's I launched a wide range of projects in the USA and China following this guidance. By 2005, it was clear that this new approach -- agile strategy -- was possible.
Next, we needed to develop successful approaches to teach the skills of this new discipline. Purdue University president Martin Jischke provided us the platform. For over a decade with Martin’s support, I led a team to develop the discipline and validate it through research. Here are some of the complex field tests we completed:
- Developing new collaborations across NASA
Life scientists in NASA are a relatively small group of professionals within a large engineering organization. We developed effective collaborations to improve the productivity of their work together.
- Designing and guiding an open innovation ecosystem
The US Navy asked Lockheed to draft a roadmap for the deployment of condition-based maintenance across the destroyer fleet. In 4 strategy workshops over 6 months, we formed a team to develop an initial roadmap.
- Developing a fresh water technology cluster
An agile strategy workshop drew together companies and launched a global water cluster. Now this global water cluster thrives from its home base in Milwaukee ( https://thewatercouncil.com )
· Reducing teenage homicides in Flint, Michigan
By training community members, they launched a series of initiatives that has reduced the violence.
In our field work, we developed the curriculum needed by businesses to teach these skills. We proved that a protocol of simple rules can lead to a new disciple of agile strategy.
Launching Strategic Doing, the First Agile Strategy Discipline
We've been working in the garage for 15 years. When we felt we were ready to move to a wider audience, we published a book, Strategic Doing: Ten Skills for Agile Leadership, to document our journey. With Purdue’s support, we also made the core intellectual property open source in order to speed its adoption.
We have been overwhelmed by the response.
· Patricia Sheehan, Agile Transformation Lead and Coach, AstraZeneca Centre of Excellence: "Applying deep underpinnings in social science research, lean/actual experimentation, and refinement through rigorous practice, the Strategic Doing founders have created a framework to fine and execute the strategy for our time."
· Jay Conger, professor of leadership studies at Claremont McKenna College: "Don't even bother reading all those other books on leadership and strategy. I know because I've written a number of them. Strategic Doing is THE source to understand how leadership and strategy are changing in this age of speed and complexity."
· Alan Beckenstein, Professor, Darden School of Business, University of Virginia: "Strategic Doing opens the door to learning how to design and implement effective strategy in some of the most complex and loosely connected networks that often frustrate organisations and institutions."
The Underlying Logic of Strategic Doing
We built Strategic Doing on top of some important research insights. Kathleen Eisenhardt, a professor at Stanford University, has spent her career studying how technology companies in turbulent environments survive and thrive. Two key points from her research have guided us.
· First, any strategy needs to be rigorously defined and answer two questions: Where are we going? and How will we get there?
· Second, agile companies answer these questions continuously by applying a discipline of simple rules.
In addition, we focused on a key element that is often ignored by management scholars: the strategic conversation. In 1996, Jeanne Liedtka and John Rosenblum, wrote an important article in the California Management Review on strategic conversations.
The Key Insight of Strategic Doing
Strategic conversations in turbulent environments have an underlying structure and trajectory. By understanding this structure, leaders can design and guide these conversations. We have identified ten skills involved. No one is good at all ten skills. As a result, cognitively diverse teams are critically important to developing strategies in turbulent environments. A Dutch company, Human Insight, has partnered with us to provide guidance on how to assemble cognitively diverse teams.
With an understanding of the structure of strategic conversations, leaders guide these conversations by asking questions.
Connecting to the Agile Business Consortium
Strategic Doing is now spreading globally. The discipline is cross cultural. We teach it in Spanish and Dutch. The pandemic has accelerated our work moving Strategic Doing to online courses. That’s where our partnership with the Consortium comes in.
Our association with John Williams predates his leadership at the Consortium. John and I first met in London in 2016. John was one of the first people in Europe to understand the importance of developing a new agile strategy discipline. We are now looking forward to taking the next step in our partnership by partnering to offer online courses in agile strategy with the Consortium.
Guest blogger bio
Ed Morrison founded the Agile Strategy Lab at Purdue University. With Liz Nilsen and Janyce Fadden, he now leads the Agile Strategy Lab at the College of Business at the University of North Alabama. The Lab designs online course offerings in agile strategy for executives and professionals. His colleague, Scott Hutcheson continues to develop Strategic Doing at Purdue. With Liz, Jancyce and Scott, Ed is the co-author of Strategic Doing: Ten Skills for Agile Leadership (Wiley, 2019).