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Adaptive Action to Aspiration: Bridging the Dynamics of Strategizing and Organizational Learning (Part 1 of 2)

A Think Piece by Dr. Yee Lai Fong, Consultant, Capelle Consulting

Last year, at this time, I shared my reflections on our role as learning and OD practitioners in developing the capacity for generative renewal within the organizations that we serve. I offered my perspective of organizational learning in terms of three time frames — past, present and future, and what it means to concurrently navigate and synthesize across them1.

In 2021, as our team in Capelle Consulting went deeper into our OD work with the social service sector, applying these time frames brought about:

  • [Past] valuable lessons as we surfaced assumptions that could be challenged;
  • [Present] rich insights as we applied design-thinking to prototype solutions; and
  • [Future] fresh inspirations as we scanned the environment and studied trends to radically reimagine the future of this sector.

Above all, it was heartening to see our social service agencies rising above the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to rally their organizations for generative renewal, on a path towards normalcy and living with COVID-19. Several agencies took the opportunity to revisit their organizational purpose and calling; engaging staff and stakeholders in envisioning the future and articulating their shared aspirations.

In the process of doing so, it became clear that given a volatile and uncertain environment, we needed to move away from traditional approaches to strategic planning that assumes a stable and knowable future, toward a more agile and adaptive approach while guided by a broad strategic direction toward achieving these shared aspirations2. Organizational learning becomes the fuel in this adaptive process as the organization generates learning insights through adaptive action and uses these experiences to create new knowledge that is shared across the organization.

This think piece integrates three frames to illustrate how we might bridge the dynamics of strategizing and organizational learning through adaptive action toward achieving our shared aspirations. This article is a tribute to our social service practitioners for their unwavering commitment, resilience and ingenuity in finding new ways to serve and engage stakeholders, seeking to transform lives and impact communities.

In this Part 1 of the think piece, I will introduce two frames:

  • 1st Frame: S.O.A.R. — a strength-based approach to strategic planning; and
  • 2nd Frame: S.O.L.E. — prioritizing projects while allowing room for exploration and experimentation

Part 2 of this think piece will conclude with discussion on putting all the three frames together by covering the 3rd Frame: S.E.C.I. — a dynamic view of organization learning and knowledge creation.

1st Frame: S.O.A.R. – a strength-based approach to strategic planning

S.O.A.R. is a strength-based approach to strategic planning developed by Jacqueline Stavros (Stavros 2020), involving conversations and collaborations with internal and external stakeholders to:

  • Take stock of the organization’s Strengths – What are we great at?
  • Identify Opportunities – What are the possibilities?
  • Articulate shared Aspirations – What are our dreams or wishes?
  • Define Results and outcomes – What are meaningful outcomes?

In contrast to S.W.O.T.3, a widely used framework, S.O.A.R. is anchored on appreciative inquiry4. Strategic conversations using S.O.A.R. are guided by a set of generative questions to uncover people’s aspirations and what they care deeply about. This generates positive energy in rallying people and their diversity of strengths to co-create a shared future. As espoused by Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, “the task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths in ways that make a system’s weaknesses irrelevant.5

This is very much aligned with the disciplines of a learning organization, where we constantly ask ourselves – how might we create conditions where “people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together”? (Senge, 1990).

Specifically, in developing solutions to complex social problems, social service agencies are weaving in the theory of change6 as another tool during strategic planning “to articulate the assumptions about the process through which change will occur and specifies the ways in which all of the required early and intermediate outcomes related to achieving the desired long-term change will be brought about and documented as they occur” (Anderson, 2005).

 

2nd Frame: S.O.L.E. – prioritizing projects while allowing room for exploration & experimentation

S.O.L.E. is a frame for prioritizing projects and initiatives following strategic planning. It is inspired by and adapted from Prof Neo Boon Siong’s work on dynamic governance (Neo, B. S., & Chen, G., 2007) where he identified three dynamic organizational capabilities:

  • Thinking Ahead – refers to “the ability to perceive early signals of developments that might affect the mission and effectiveness of an institution”, and thereby conceive strategies to adapt to the changing environment;
  • Thinking Again – refers to “re-considering and re-inventing of currently functional policies and processes when the environment changes to achieve better results”;
  • Thinking Across – refers to “the ability to cross boundaries to learn from the experience of others, recognizing that others’ ideas, systems and experiences may hold lessons which may be adapted to a specific organization to achieve new or different outcomes.”

 

Typically, organizations that end up constantly fire fighting are probably those that devoted a disproportionate amount of time to short-term operational issues. In charting workplans for the year, the process of mapping initiatives and projects using S.O.L.E. enables the organization to calibrate an optimal mix, committing certain bandwidth for exploration (learning from others and external scanning) and experimentation (e.g. applying design-thinking to gather user needs, co-create and prototype solutions).

Prototyping through design-thinking is at the heart of learning-by-doing as “people and organizations are all the time learning something that is not stable, not even defined or understood ahead of time … they are literally learned as they are being created” (Engestrom, 2001). Such forms of learning are generated from iterative cycles of adaptive actions and is best achieved by engaging stakeholders, including volunteers and service users, in the process of co-creation. This is a departure from the conventional linear view of learning that is packaged as a curriculum and delivered to learners to develop their competencies.

The arrows in the diagram mean that learning insights from exploration can lead to identification of areas for intentional experimentation. Those showing potential may form the pillars in the subsequent strategic plans. When they are stable and scalable, the focus could shift to optimizing operational efficiency in a steady state.


References

Anderson, A. (2005). The community builder’s approach to theory of change: A practical guide to theory and development. New York: The Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change.

Engestrom, Y. (2001). Expansive learning at work: Toward an activity theoretical reconceptualization. Journal of Education and Work, 14(1), 133-156.

Neo, B. S., & Chen, G. (2007). Dynamic governance: Embedding culture, capabilities and change in Singapore. New Jersey: World Scientific.

Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organisation. New York: Doubledy/Currency.

Stavros, J. (2020). SOAR 2020 and beyond: Strategy, systems innovation and stakeholder engagement. AI Practitioner, 22(2), 70-91, doi: 10.12781/978-1-907549-43-4-11

 

 

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