Some thoughts on strategy in a world of open networks

Over the years, I have collected a number of thoughts on developing strategies in a globally connected world.
  • In a globally connected world, isolation is a choice. If you want to face the turbulence ahead by yourself, go ahead. But that’s probably not your best option.
  • You always have the opportunity to connect. The choice doesn’t disappear.
  • To build networks, close triangles. You know George and you know Nancy, but they do not know each other. Introduce them with a short e-mail.
  • Closing triangles is a powerful routine to strengthen a community or region. If you closed five triangles a month, you would close 60 a year. If a 100 people in your community followed your lead, you would have 6,000 new connections in a year.
  • Open, loosely connected networks can be guided strategically. That’s how open source software development works.
  • Strategic Doing is a simple discipline to form complex collaborations, manage them toward measurable outcomes, and adjust along the way.
  • Strategic Doing generates “link and leverage” collaborations across organizational and political boundaries.
  • With Strategic Doing, we follow simple rules to link, leverage and align our assets, so we can do far more with what we have.
  • Strategic Doing teaches you how to build complex collaborations quickly and keep them on track with measurable outcomes.
  • Traditional approaches to strategy — strategic planning — can be made more agile by combining these approaches with Strategic Doing. We are not living in an “either/or” world anymore.  If you are stuck, try “both/and”.
  • Strategic planning has difficulty keeping up with the pace of change we face. We need to do out strategic thinking differently. 
  • In a complex world, our strategy is emergent. We learn as we do.
  • With collaboration, the soft stuff is the hard stuff. We need simple rules to deal with the hard stuff.
  • Strategic Doing takes time to develop. It involves building new, collective habits of thinking and doing. Remember how hard it is for you to form a new habit. Now multiply that by dozens of people.
  • The core skill of authentic connection is the ability to listen. Strategic Doing starts by listening to each other and learning what assets we have to share.
  • Opportunities are defined by shared value. Through collaboration, we can create something that individually we cannot create on our own. It’s the 1 + 1 =3 (or 5 or 10). 
  • Most people underestimate the challenge of collaboration. It’s an on-going commitment to transparency, authenticity, deep thinking and action.
  • Collaboration is more than exchanging e-mails. It’s more than facial recognition.
  • Fear undercuts our capacity to connect. The reality is that we are driving down a foggy road at 60 miles an hour looking for the next curve. No one can predict what lies ahead. Fear is a reasonable emotion under our circumstances, but it doesn’t help us much.
  • The purpose of talking about our fears is to shrink them to a manageable size. Then we can move ahead.
  • Soreheads pull things apart. It’s relatively easy to do. Not much brainpower is required.
  • Regional development poses the most complex collaboration challenges we face in our economy. Consider the difficulties. We are addressing highly complex challenges in an open network. Nobody can tell anyone else what to do. We normally do not have a strong history of working together. Standard rules of fair dealing do not necessarily apply. We may not know whom to trust. Our skill levels vary, and we each carry some emotional baggage that influences what we see and hear. Is it any wonder that regions have difficulty coming together?
  • Sustainability, adaptation and resilience are closely connected ideas. By building trusted networks in our regions, we are expanding our collective capacity to adjust to the next big shock that’s coming.
  • The core question of civic leadership is simple: What kind of place do we want to leave for our children and grandchildren?
  • Strengthening our linkages among us is our best approach to deal with uncertainty. It’s not a new idea. That’s why we buy insurance.
  • Strategic Doing guides conversations. It is not “top down” or “bottom up”, because we are dealing with networks, and there are no tops or bottoms to a network. We are combining open participation with leadership guidance.
  • For too long, we have treated civility as an adornment to our democracy. Far from it. If we do not follow some basic rules of civility, we cannot do the complex thinking together that our democracy demands.
  • Strategy answers two questions: Where are we going? and How will we get there? Strategic Doing answers these 2 questions by breaking them apart into even simpler steps.
  • When people start to think regionally, they often worry too much about protecting their boundaries. Regional strategies don’t work if too many people fall into this trap. Regional strategies work best when we connect our core strengths across organizational and political lines.
  • Build your region out from a core of “a willing network”. Worry less about boundaries. As you strengthen the cores of your region — and connect them — your boundaries will expand.
  • The first distance we have to travel to build regional collaboration is not very far. It’s the distance between our ears.
  • Exploring our assets begins a collaboration. We need to find opportunities for mutual benefit. These opportunities arise when we take our shared assets and connect them in new and different ways.
  • Enduring collaborations are forged by the hard work of defining measurable outcomes and then moving these outcomes into action with simple steps, simple commitments. 
  • Visions can work to align and guide an organization. Yet, they do not work all that well in open, loosely connected networks, where no one can tell anyone else what to do. People in our networks are practical. They need clear outcomes if they are going to commit their time and resources. Vision statements often do not provide that clarity.
  • Within a network, translating a vision or an opportunity into an outcome involves deep thinking about what success should look like. We’re trying to describe a complex, multidimensional reality somewhere in the future. It’s not easy.
  • To move people in a network, they need to see pragmatic, measurable outcomes in their own mind’s eye. It’s only then that they trust the words enough to decide whether they will take action.
  • Strategic Doing is a process of fast cycle experimentation to figure out what works.
  • We need to transform our regional economies to meet the new realities of global competition and environmental sustainability. On top of that, our economy is aging, and that trend creates its own set of challenges.
  • These challenges are unprecedented in our lifetime. If we rely on the same old patterns of thinking and doing, we are driving into the future looking in the rearview mirror.
  • Our private foundations represent one of the major competitive assets of our economy. Yet, they have been curiously ineffective in their investment strategies for regional development. It’s ironic, but foundations may not be our fastest learners.
  • The federal government has been hobbled by silo thinking, a legacy of our industrial economy. Among federal agencies, the level of sophisticated collaboration is slow to develop. This is odd. Collaboration at the federal level should be quick to form. After all, federal workers only have to walk across the street to meet. In our regions, civic leaders often have to drive for hours.
  • Officials in the federal government often come to our regions with good intentions. Typically, they drop a load of tools on the table, expecting us to collaborate. What they don’t understand is that their tools are not up to the task. Think of it this way. We are working on electronic transmissions, and they are handing us rusty pliers. It’s nobody’s fault. Most federal programs were designed 30, 40 or 50 years ago, and they were not designed to work together. Today, we need different policies, not old policies wrapped loosely together.
  • Strategies in complex, evolving regional economies emerge as we translate ideas in action and learn what works. Strategic Doing produces agile strategies that enable us to “run to daylight”.
  • We each have networks we can mobilize. These networks vary in size, but let’s assume an average of 50 people in a personal network. That means when we come together in a small group, we can  have an impact far greater than what we see. We are really designing strategies for a network 50 times the size of the people in the room.
  • Regional development practitioners have a lot in common with molecular biologists. We’re both trying to define complex networks we cannot see.
  • We are moving away from the economy in which business and civic organizations operated hierarchically.  These hierarchies work well to manage stable routines in stable times. But hierarchies do not learn or adjust quickly. They cannot keep up with the rate of change we face today.
  • A new economy based on networks is emerging. Our children and grandchildren will inherit this economy. How much of our left-over junk are they going to have to deal with?
  • Embarking on the journey of Strategic Doing does not mean starting over. Strategic Doing takes a region’s current strategic thinking and moves it to the next level. How? By translating ideas into action quickly so we can learn what works.
  • We can measure the capacity of our network to do complex work by the number of trusted relationships in the network.
  • In the network world, metrics play a different role. Traditionally, metrics focused on control. Are our subordinates following our plan? In the network world, metrics play a new role. They speed our learning. In fact, we cannot learn much without them
  • In the industrial world, to develop speed you go fast. In the network world, to develop speed, you need to go slowly at first to accelerate later. Intentionally building trusting relationships takes time. As a trusted network develops, you end up going faster than you ever thought possible.
Ed Morrison is Director of the Purdue Agile Strategy Lab. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. For the past five or six years, he has been developing new, agile approaches to strategy in open, loosely joined networks, a discipline he calls Strategic Doing. Prior to starting his economic development work, Ed worked for Telesis, a corporate strategy consulting firm. In this position, he served on consulting teams for clients such as Ford Motor Company, Volvo, and General Electric. He conducted manufacturing cost studies in the U.S., Japan, Mexico, Canada, Italy, Sweden, and France. Ed started his professional career in Washington, D.C., where he has served as a legislative assistant to an Ohio Congressman, staff attorney in the Federal Trade Commission, and staff counsel in the US Senate. He holds a BA degree cum laude with honors from Yale University and MBA and JD degrees from the University of Virginia.

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