Embracing Complexity: An Introduction to Strategic Doing

Navigating the Complex Landscape of Modern Challenges In today’s fast-paced world, organizations often grapple with complex challenges that require innovative solutions and effective collaboration. Traditional methods of strategic planning often fall short in the face of these intricacies. This is where “Strategic Doing” comes into play—a dynamic approach designed to address complex challenges through adaptive, collaborative strategies.

Understanding Complex Challenges

Complex challenges are distinct from simple or complicated problems. They often lack a clear problem statement and an obvious solution. These challenges require collaboration across multiple stakeholders, including different departments within an organization, and often multiple organizations. Traditional strategic planning, with its hierarchical and top-down approach developed in the 1950s, is ill-equipped to handle the fluid and decentralized nature of these problems.

The Simplicity of Strategic Doing

While it might seem intuitive to combat complexity with complexity, Liz Nilsen from the Agile Strategy Lab at the University of North Alabama emphasizes the power of simplicity. Strategic Doing leverages simple rules to guide collaborative processes efficiently. This approach emphasizes action and impact rather than getting bogged down in endless conversations and planning.

Strategic Doing vs. Strategic Planning

It’s critical to distinguish between Strategic Doing and traditional strategic planning. Strategic planning relies on a linear process, which includes extensive data analysis and backward-looking strategies. Often, this results in grand visions that fail to translate into meaningful actions. In contrast, Strategic Doing is agile and iterative. It focuses on guided conversations geared toward aligning stakeholders on shared outcomes, identifying opportunities, and driving tangible actions. This approach is especially useful in scenarios where hierarchies are flat or nonexistent, and mutual accountability is the key to progress.

Breaking Down Strategy into Manageable Questions

Strategic Doing begins with a clear understanding of strategy itself—knowing where you are going and how you will get there. These two fundamental questions are further broken down into four essential queries:

  1. What Could We Do? Identify the opportunities available with the resources already at hand. This exploratory phase often yields more options than can realistically be pursued.
  2. What Should We Do? Prioritize the options identified. This step involves strategic decision-making to choose the most effective initial direction and defining what success looks like.
  3. What Will We Do? Make concrete commitments. Each participant decides on specific actions they will take. These actions, though small, collectively push the entire initiative forward through the activation of broader networks.
  4. What’s Our 30/30? This term refers to the rhythm of review and revision. Typically occurring every 30 days, this process involves assessing progress, learning from actions taken, and pivoting if necessary.

Activating Networks and Building

Accountability One of the transformative aspects of Strategic Doing is its emphasis on leveraging personal networks. An initial conversation among a few individuals can scale rapidly as each person involves their network. The ripple effect can greatly amplify efforts, turning small personal commitments into large-scale collaborative action. However, this scaling hinges on mutual accountability. Participants must transition from mere discussions to making and fulfilling specific commitments. This cultural shift can be daunting but is crucial for meaningful progress.

Adapting to New Realities: The 30/30 Cycle

Inherent in Strategic Doing is the understanding that new information and insights will continuously emerge. The 30/30 cycle ensures that the group remains agile, adapting strategies based on real-time feedback. This iterative process builds resilience, reduces risks, and ensures sustained momentum towards the desired outcome.

Real-World Applications of Strategic Doing

Strategic Doing has been effectively applied in various complex scenarios:

  • Entrepreneurial Ecosystems: Fostering collaboration among diverse stakeholders to spur innovation.
  • Multidisciplinary Research Initiatives: Aligning researchers from different fields toward common objectives.
  • Community Development: Addressing long-standing issues in urban and rural communities.
  • Public Health: Tackling intricate health crises like opioid addiction and infant mortality.
  • University Strategy: Moving beyond static strategic plans to dynamic, adaptive strategies to combat demographic challenges.


Strategic Doing offers a robust framework for navigating the complexities of modern challenges. Its focus on simple rules, guided conversations, and iterative actions provides a clear path from ideation to impact. As we face an increasingly interconnected and dynamic world, adapting our strategies through methods like Strategic Doing will be essential for meaningful and lasting solutions. For more insights and assistance with implementing Strategic Doing, visit the Agile Strategy Lab’s website at [agilestrategylab.org](https://agilestrategylab.org) or connect with them on LinkedIn. The lab’s experts are ready to help you tackle your complex challenges with innovative, collaborative approaches.