Liberating Strategy

Surprise and Serendipity Put To Work

By Keith McCandless and Johannes Schartau

To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To rely on surprise is to be educated. James P Carse

Liberating Strategy begins and ends with Liberating Structures (LS). They are simple rules that make it possible to include and engage every voice in shaping the future and strategy. LS can be used to not only create a different kind of strategy but also to transform the whole process of strategy-making.

The LS repertoire consists of 33 practical methods versatile enough for anyone to use for a wide array of activities and challenges. None require expert training. LS methods spark lively engagement by minimally structuring the way we interact while liberating content or subject matter. Very simple constraints unleash creative adaptability, generating possibilities where none seemed to exist before.

Icons representing 33 Liberating Structures (LS)

Why Strategy Needs Liberating

Organizations need a strategy to turn ideas and ambitions into reality. Individuals need a strategy to evaluate the interplay of their purpose and their actions. However, in many organizations strategic planning practices exclude diverse voices, over-control people, and stifle ambition.

For example, have you experienced:

  • dusting off and slightly updating last year’s strategic plan?
  • being exhorted to follow global strategies that are a poor fit for your local challenges?
  • “iterating your way to success” without any idea what success might actually look like?
  • changing strategies so often that no one is quite sure which is the current one?
  • shilly-shallying between a tightly integrated and wildly autonomous schemes?

If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, you may find hope in this short article and remedies in a more detailed monograph about liberating strategy [read more].

Three Challenges To Overcome

Traditional strategic planning is often characterized by the assumption that the future is going to play out across a relatively predictable path toward a fixed point. A “single monolithic plan” is drafted, typically accompanied by a stay-the-course, no-surprises tactical gameplan. This approach is at odds with the reality of unpredictable dynamics and fast moving markets. The idea of a linear future clashes with a rapidly changing environment and leaves companies inflexible and exposed to the risk of sudden disruption.

At the same time, methods like Agile development are enjoying growing popularity. These regularly lead to a different strategic mindset: one of reacting to dynamics in the moment, without shaping the future in a meaningful way. The future is seen as so complex and unpredictable that strategic planning is futile and unnecessary. This creates a “no plan” work culture where every whim seems like a good idea and every action feels successful.

Whenever a strategy is created it is usually done rarely and only by a selected handful of people. These select few are often removed from work as it is being done in a day to day fashion. They lack direct customer or market interaction. As such they miss out on crucial information that could influence the strategy in a drastic way. They then need to sell the results to the rest of the organization and fight resistance against a narrative that feels out of touch.

Questions To Generate A Shared Strategic Narrative

We propose an alternative: a liberated approach to shaping the future while creatively adapting in the moment. The method poses six simple questions to be answered by all relevant stakeholders using Liberating Structures. A compelling strategic narrative is authored, owned, and then operated by everyone.

A productive starting point for liberating strategy is anchored in six core questions. This set of questions is an approach called Strategy Knotworking. It introduces a dynamic, iterative, and adaptive way of planning with groups of any size. The questions are explored in order 1–2–3–4–5–6 but the answers order themselves as the relationships among the answers take shape.

1. Purpose: What is the fundamental justification & deepest need for our work?
2. Context: What is happening around us that demands creative change?
3. Challenge: What are the paradoxes we must face in order to make progress?
4. Baseline: Where are we starting, honestly?
5. Ambition: Given our purpose, what seems possible now?
6. Action and Evaluation: How are we acting our way toward the future, evaluating what is possible as we go?

To make strategy more responsive to emergent challenges and nascent opportunities, the Liberated approach invites each person to explore the interplay of action and purpose continuously (not relegated to the annual strategy retreat). Individually and collectively, participants pay close attention to how choices open and close possibilities to make progress toward a worthy purpose. Freedom and responsibility for strategy is part of every role in an organization. Participants act-and-sense their way forward as strategy is mutually shaped in the moment.

Liberating Structures Matched To Six Core Questions

Illustrated below are examples of specific Liberating Structures that we use frequently to answer the six Strategy Knotworking questions. These LS or others as simple as 1–2–4-All can be used to explore the questions with depth and breadth.

We believe that Liberating Structures make it possible to include more people than ever before in strategic planning. Answering the Strategy Knotworking questions creates a path for all the participants to move from purpose to ambition to action. It becomes surprisingly easy to not just talk about lofty aspirations but immediately take steps towards making them a reality across an entire organization.

For a more detailed “how to” description of the approach, read more here. A business school case study illustrates the step-by-step use of LS to liberate strategy.

Sources and Learning Options

About the Authors

Keith McCandless

Keith is the co-developer of Liberating Structures and co-author of The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures: Simple Rules to Unleash A Culture of Innovation (2013). He consults with business, government, philanthropic, research, educational, and health organizations worldwide, focusing on how to address complex challenges and include everyone in shaping the future. Born in Cincinnati Ohio, he holds a Masters in Management of Human Services from Brandeis University in Boston and a BA from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Keith lives in Seattle with his wife Annie and Deacon the whippet with talent to amuse.

Johannes Schartau

Johannes is a consultant, trainer and coach for Agile product development and organizational improvement. As a Liberating Structures enthusiast he believes in the power of collaboration and providing groups with a space to create momentum. His toolset includes systems, complexity and integral thinking, empathy, and a good dose of humor. Johannes works for the beautiful company Holisticon in Hamburg, Germany, but is active worldwide.

Acknowledgements

A deep bow to our contributors, reviewers and editors: Fisher Qua and Nancy White (for contributions to the business school example and field testing Strategy Knotworking), Leslie Stephen, Henri Lipmanowicz, Christiaan Verwijs, and Klara von Carlsburg.