Crisis as catalyst. Risk as renewal.
Classical strategic planning is based upon the assumption of a slowly changing future. This assumption is wrong.
Climate change, technological innovation, resource challenges, political and social volatility, and more frequent technical and natural disasters point to the newly emerging context of strategic planning. The U.S. Army War College calls this the “VUCA Context“; Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.
VUCA conditions lead to a shift in how we understand and enact strategic planning. They create a crisis in how we govern and manage organisations across a range of domains. ”[Seeing the world] as a ceaselessly complex and adaptive system… involves changing the role we imagine for ourselves… from architects of a system we can control… to gardeners living in a shifting ecosystem [mostly out of our control].” (Cooper, 2009).
VUCA and its consequences demonstrate that complexity and crisis themselves are the new context for governance and design. Instead of a periodic threat to the status quo, crisis has become the new normal; the new standard to which we must strive to adapt and succeed within.
This is uncomfortable. Complexity and collapse, volatility and transition – these will become the defining experiences of our decade. Adapting to these conditions requires re-orientation of our strategic goals and the operational methods we use to achieve them.
The need to re-orient our goals and values can produce resistance, fear, anxiety and tension. Turning away from uncomfortable long term issues and cultivating a deliberate ignorance of the potential for radical short term change is common when both our goals and agreed processes for achieving them are open for debate. This is especially true in the context of public sector policy-making, which places important emphasis on socially constructed agreement as both the goal for, and mechanism of, governance.
As a result, many organisations are retreating from the future. Speaking about urban planning, for example, Isserman writes that we have, “lost sight of the future… creating increasingly feeble, myopic, degenerate frameworks that are more likely to react to yesterday’s events than to prepare the way from here to the future.” The effect is to produce habitual blind spots in many modern organisations; making it difficult to discuss or even think about issues of critical change.
Thankfully, there are a range of useful tools for addressing long term planning under uncertainty that mainstream planning and public policy have hitherto mostly ignored. These include scenario planning, social simulation, role playing, red teaming, crowd sourcing, collective intelligence, sensemaking and experiential learning, all of which create new possibilities for strategic understanding and action.
The challenge for 21st Century professionals is to successfully apply these tools, and the lessons they produce, in the context of stiff organisational resistance and political fear. Our job should be to facilitate events and environments that help institutions understand and prepare for rapid transformation under conditions of surprising, disruptive change.
To do so, we must take actions that recognize the difficulties and contingencies of our situation, yet offer tangible solutions for moving beyond them. Such actions are inherently creative, uncertain, and emergent. In order to inspire hope, they must be focused on the positive opportunities which such changes provide. Hope is vital because, without such hope, we are doomed to transactional meaningless or, even worse, the cowardly operationalism of “I was just following orders.”
Like gardeners, we must use our tools to cultivate a larger awareness of the patterns of change around us (the seasons) and use our tools to plant seeds of hope in pragmatic, effective ways. Like designers, we must use these seeds to demonstrate new ways of thinking, acting and behaving under radically changing conditions that offer tangible improvement and inspiration.
Our goal is to use our creativity and insight to move beyond paralysis and towards complexity, to seek out uncertainty and change with the same vigour we have traditionally reserved for stability. Transition is the goal, design is the method, strategy is the outcome.