The backstory of Strategic Doing

Here’s an interview on the backstory of Strategic Doing. Compiled by Liz Nilsen for our new edition of the Strategic Doing Field Guide, it provides you with some context on how Strategic Doing evolved.

Ed, what inspired you to develop Strategic Doing?

The seeds were planted over 30 years ago on Capitol Hill, of all places. Coming out of college, I landed a job as a legislative assistant to an Ohio Congressman, whereI confronted the really complex challenge of globalization in the post-World War II era. This complex challenge – how do we improve the productivity and competitiveness of the American economy – became the focus of my early career. For nearly a decade, I joined a small army of people looking for answers in Washington. The notion was straightforward. If Washington pulled the right policy levers, we could set the economy on the right course.

But in the end, my Capitol Hill experiences would not bring me much closer understanding how we could build a more competitive, prosperous economy. To learn more, I took a job with a corporate strategy consulting firm. In that position, I was able to see how corporations were restructuring their manufacturing operations to adjust to global competition. On a practical level, most of this work involved recommending the shutdown of US manufacturing facilities. Not surprisingly, these decisions excluded any consideration of the communities and regions left behind.

You went into your professional career working for the “better good,” – how did you get back on that track?

After three years, I decided to establish my own consulting practice focused on helping communities and regions adjust to the growing pressures of global competition – by adapting the strategic planning models that I had been using – but concluded that while these models could be used, they are very expensive. Then, in the early 1990s, I met the chief technology officer of an Internet company in Singapore. He told me that the coming Internet would change everything, and that if I really wanted to understand how communities and regions could adjust to the new era, I should understand how open source software worked – through a loosely coupled network of individuals working together to complete complex projects in an environment when nobody can tell anybody else what to do.

That conversation sparked a new model of strategy. I tested out some early ideas when I began work in Oklahoma City. The collapse of oil prices in the early 1980s blew a hole in the regional economy, and things still hadn’t rebounded. We piloted some ideas that are still cornerstones of Strategic Doing: experimentation and implementation of ideas starting on Day One; 30/30 meetings, and a core team to design and manage the strategy process. I built on these ideas in Kentucky and in Charleston, South Carolina, and kept working at understanding open source software development so that I could borrow its key insights.

It sounds like the pieces were falling into place. How did you end up in higher education?

By 2005, I’d seen that this new strategy discipline, which I began calling Strategic Doing, could be replicated. But I couldn’t work in every community that needed this new approach. I needed to learn how to teach this discipline to others. To do that, I moved into the university – first at Case Western University, and since 2007 (?) at Purdue University, where we’ve built a team to deploy Strategic Doing. We began holding workshops across the county, focusing not on a consulting approach, but instead on teaching others how to “do” strategy on their own. We have been in 44 states and six foreign countries introducing this new approach to strategy in open, loosely connected networks, and have seen the people we’ve worked with find remarkable success.

You’ve shown that Strategic Doing is an effective economic development approach, but does it go beyond that?

The discipline is being used in many different contexts. In Flint, Michigan, community leaders are designing and guiding their own strategies for taking on challenges like reducing teenage homicide rates (Flint is also where we designed Strategic Doing: The Game). We also got involved in engineering education transformation – first in a network of 50 universities as part of an NSF grant, and now inside Purdue with the School of Mechanical Engineering. We’re also doing quite a bit with small and large companies, and – coming full circle from where my career started – we’re working with governmental agencies, helping them identify and pursue strategic outcomes.

You’re now based at the Agile Strategy “Lab.” What’s that about?

By 2016, our growth outstripped the capacity of the Purdue Center for Regional Development – which first welcomed us to Purdue – to support it, and so we formed the Purdue Agile Strategy Lab. All along, experimentation has been the way we identify better approaches to strategy, and using the word “lab” reminds us that we’re not done – we’re still discovering, still learning.

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