Jan 5, 2022, 1:00 PM

Leading from the emerging future – Choosing a strategic planning process that is fit for purpose

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” -Albert Einstein

After 25 years working in NGOs, and for the past 13 as Executive Director of Women for Women International, I am now outside of any organisational structure. This has given me space and time to reflect on some of the great challenges that I believe our sector faces. Since we are at the start of a new year, the challenge that I want to look at in this article is the strategic planning process.

A tightening grip on the past

How much time do you spend on analysing what worked in the past? How much time do you spend on analysing your competitors, based on their past performance? How much of your knowledge that informs your strategy comes from the past? When did you last review your strategic planning process?

I would love to know the answers to these questions, because they are at the heart of the challenge that I see. Now, more than ever before, we are acutely aware of how little we know about the future. Covid, amongst many other things, has shown us the fragility of our plans.

In the face of uncertainty, I have seen many organisations hold on even tighter to the past and the belief that if we understand the past we can plan for the future. The grip on structures and processes that we built based on that belief has further tightened.

I am certain that this is no longer – if it ever has been – fit for purpose for a sector that focuses on change. There won’t be any organisations that don’t have in their mission some form of change objective, yet the tools we use are more focused on creating a sense of certainty than they are on embracing change.

Here is where the greatest challenge lies: there is a misalignment between what we set out to achieve and the way we create the roadmap for such change. What would a strategy process look like if it was focused on change? If it embodied change?

Lagging behind the present

What if we shifted the time we spend on analysing the past to being present in the moment, sensing into what is emerging. As we sit here thinking about the past, the present is happening, but it is escaping us because we are not paying attention.

That’s how a gap is created where we end up always lagging behind the present and the future that is emerging in the present moment. And then we are surprised that we are constantly in ‘crisis mode’.

I imagine that as you started reading this you got excited for a moment and then the voice of judgment and cynicism, which we all have inside us, came in and suggested that this just sounds far too lofty and that there is no time to experiment. Right?

This is where I invite you to suspend that voice and take a deep breath and return to your initial sense of excitement, because the good news is many of us are already doing this. In fact, there is a whole Presencing Institute, led by Otto Scharmer at MIT, who have been researching this way of leading for the past decade.

Sensing into the future

When I discovered Scharmer’s work last year and completed his course, it gave me language for articulating what I had until then just sensed in the work I had been doing. His Theory U is offering us tools that will allow us to shape a strategic planning process that is fit for purpose.

At the heart of it is what I described above – what he calls Presencing. This is a wonderful practice of sensing into yourself in the present moment and actualising your highest future potential through the active employment of curiosity, compassion and courage. And here the ‘you’ can both be us as individual leaders as well as the collective – the institutions we work for.

What if this became the heart of your strategic planning process?

Picture 1.pngBy embracing this process of co-initiating, co-sensing, presencing, co-creating and co-evolving, we are integrating the change we want to see in the way we operate. We bridge the gap I described above. We free ourselves from the structures and processes that are no longer serving us.

Plan to test and change

At Women for Women International, my team and I had several mottos by which we worked. “Fail fast” was one of them – it links to the co-creating phase of Theory U, where you prototype the new and you “don’t wait to be ready” (another of my team’s mottos).

There are a few radical changes that are implied in this model:

•   Suspend your sole focus on the past

•   Trust your intuition

•   Deep Listening to “the places of most potential”

•   A focus on ‘co-llaboration’ at all levels

•   A lightness in planning – you plan to test and change not to adhere and perfect

•   You ARE the change – you embody the process

Undoubtedly this amounts to a big step for many of us, but we can take courage from the many institutions that have already adopted Theory U and there are many examples on the Presencing Institute’s website. In fact, this ‘test and change’ approach has been vital to key innovation, including the tech boom, and it could be argued that it is a proven method for effecting change. So we know it is possible. And now is the time.

If you are interested in learning more from Brita about the application of presencing in your strategic planning, please call 01737 814758 or email office@actionplanning.co.uk.

Andrew Johnson

Brita Fernandez Schmidt is a deep transformational coach, strategy consultant (trained in Theory U), author and public speaker.