Strategy: change & chaos

Steve Whiting at Turning The Tide offers some thoughts on traditional strategy tools, and whether they may only be part of the picture:

I see people getting stressed and unwell, burning themselves out for a change they must see urgently. I’ve come close to it myself and I’m convinced that such negative effects are because we make ourselves prisoners to the outcomes we want, at the times we want them. I’m not downplaying the apocalyptic issues we’re dealing with, nor saying we shouldn’t have a clear idea what we’re working for – obviously we should. But big change doesn’t always happen as we want, or when we want it, and it won’t come about through our efforts alone. This places too much on us and ultimately is disempowering.

One tool I use when exploring change and strategy in workshops is to ask groups to identify a positive change that they know about. They write what the change was and stick the paper on one wall of the room then go to the opposite wall and tell the story, stepping forwards each time the group thought a particular event signified progress – and back for every setback – until they reached the change written on the paper. This is good preparation for planning their own campaign strategy.

Strategy: maybe not so linear?

I think tools like these are helpful. But somewhere along the way I’ve realised that this is trying to understand change through a linear cause-and-effect mindset. Things do indeed look linear in retrospect, but looking forward might be different. I realised that I was approaching campaign planning like a lot of organisations do: here are our aims, here are our activities, and these are our expected outcomes. Then I’d be disappointed that, for all our efforts, we hadn’t achieved the change we wanted.

I read about chaos theory and systems and realised that this linear approach is to view strategy and change as operating in a closed system, where things can be predicted or controlled. It’s useful, and I believe still valuable, as a way of analysing and planning. But let’s be clear that many of our endeavours for change are attempts to contain an open universe into a closed controlled system. And real life ain’t like that.

Everything is in relation to everything, and everything is constantly in motion. Chaos theory tells us that even tiny encounters can change future trajectories. Remember the “butterfly effect”? Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas? The theory suggests that the flapping wing is a small change in the system, which causes a chain of events leading to large-scale phenomena. Had the butterfly not flapped its wings, the trajectory of the system might have been very different. People who’ve influenced me at key points in my life often are oblivious to the effect they’ve had on my future direction. And, for me, the simple fact is that I don’t know what effect my actions have. Who does? Sure, we know we can shut down trading in the City or a military base for a day – before they return to business as usual. We know about short-term effects, and those actions are entirely valid. But what about the longer term goals, the trajectories? We know the Iraq invasion went ahead anyway, but what about future military adventures?

“bringing about systemic change is less about trying to control things and force a particular outcome at a particular time, and more about trying to create the conditions for that change to happen.”

In the workshop activity I described earlier, I’m often struck by accounts of events – curiously often negative – that seemed to have come completely out of nowhere that influenced and strengthened the campaign. In retrospect, it usually was important for that event to happen, but it was never foreseen or even thought of as helpful at the time. The key lay in the movement’s ability to respond well to it.

So for me, bringing about systemic change is less about trying to control things and force a particular outcome at a particular time, and more about trying to create the conditions for that change to happen. This doesn’t necessarily mean changing what we actually do. It just requires us to be more open to different understandings about the effect we are having – and the effect on us when we do it.

Strategy workshops should of course acknowledge the variety of closed system tactics that can be deployed. But they are also to do with the group’s knowledge of itself, it’s resilience and ability to recognise its own special qualities alongside all the other forces working with and against it in the wider inter-connected universe. It’s about how it anchors itself to the alternative values it wants to bring about in the world, so helping to create the conditions for the change.

“I now think there is a greater role in strategy workshops for the creativity, resources and resilience of the group to be explored.”

So as well as planning the what, perhaps using tried-and-tested tools of visioning and analysis, it’s important to explore the how and why. I now think there is a greater role in strategy workshops for the creativity, resources and resilience of the group to be explored. Tools like group challenges, role identification, re-scripting narratives, can help reframe understandings and perceptions. Tools that practice changed habits and behaviours, widen perspectives and help loosen our grip on our prescribed outcomes.

We must plan, but let’s plan to change the plan. The vital thing is to make ourselves strong for effective action and resilient to respond to whatever comes our way. That way we can be true to our goals and visions without guilt-tripping and burning out because we must have this result now. It’s a liberating approach that is also sustainable. Just because we haven’t seen the revolution yet doesn’t mean it’s not happening!


This is just the first in a series of posts on strategy, so join the dialogue – post your comments below, share your experience, ask your questions!


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