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Bringing Thinking & Learning into Strategy & Planning: Eval Lab 3.0

This post was originally published by the Evaluation Capacity Network.

The past two years have provided a wide-spread lesson on constant change. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated pre-existing trends and drivers, revealing systemic vulnerabilities, and climate change has amplified the complexity, as ecological systems are interacting with social, political, economic systems in unpredictable ways.

We are living in an age of disequilibrium.

In an environment characterized by flux and uncertainty, the ability to think strategically, to make sense of shifting conditions, and to assess what is working and not working is vital for resilience and adaptability.

In January 2022, the Evaluation Capacity Network in partnership with the Edmonton Chamber of Voluntary Organizations will be addressing this challenge. Eval Lab 3.0 is a capacity-building initiative aimed at enhancing the strategic capabilities of nonprofit organizations. Over 21 instructional hours, Eval Lab participants will build their knowledge and skills on strategy and strategic learning in an engaging and participatory environment.

In our experience, “strategy” — the integrated set of choices that position an organization for success within a dynamic environment[1] — is distinct from “planning”. Plans may flow from strategy, but many plans lack strategy. They lack a coherent articulation of “why” a set of choices (best guesses) might lead to a set of desired outcomes. In the absence of this, it is difficult to understand what contributes to success or to trace the inevitable shifts in decision-making and strategy that occur as we respond to a volatile world.

A strategy (and the plan to implement strategy) should provide a compelling “narrative of change” that identifies why and how we are pursuing a particular course of action. This story articulates the impact we want to have in the world, and aligns our activities to our intentions. In its simplest form, a strategic plan describes the journey from “where we are today” (world as it is) to “where we want to be” (world as it ought to be).

It also describes the context in which our actions occur, the main characters involved, and the factors that may help or hinder the achievement of our ambitions. As such, this narrative of change should be explicit about the assumptions that underpin our choices. It should answer the question: “What would need to be true for this strategy to be successful?”

This creates a framework for intention, action, reflection, learning, and adaptation. A solid strategy should also be evidence-informed and testable. I am reminded of the adage from the world of evaluation: “No story without data; No data without a story.”

Another shortcoming of many strategies and plans is that they do not hedge their bets against more than one possible future. They convey a false sense of certainty. It is useful to treat strategy as a portfolio of choices in three dimensions: 1) How do we optimize what is currently working well today?(Same game; same rules); 2) How do we seize emerging opportunities?(Same game; different rules); 3) How do we prepare for (or shape) a new future?(Different game; different set of rules).

Strategy is about thinking — and this thinking has five key attributes: [2]

1. It reflects a systems or holistic view that appreciates how the different parts of an organization influence each other, as well as their different environments.

2. It focuses on intent, and understanding the purpose and rationale behind decisions.

3. It involves thinking in time. Strategic thinkers understand the interconnectivity of past, present, and future. They also appreciate that in an age of complexity, we are facing multiple possible futures.

4. It involves the capacity to be intelligently opportunistic, to recognize and take advantage of newly emerging opportunities.

5. It is hypothesis driven. Strategic thinking is about making best guesses and about articulating and testing the assumptions that underpin these choices. And it is about applying this learning to future decisions.

We welcome you into this conversation. Won't you join us in Eval lab 3.0 as we explore how we can apply these concepts to our organizations?

[1] Roger L. Martin, Don’t Let Strategy Become Planning; Harvard Business Review; February 05, 2013.

[2] Liedtka, J.M. (1998), “Linking strategic thinking with strategic planning” , Strategy & Leadership, September/October, pp. 30-5.

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