We Are – The Story of the Agile Strategy Lab

When people hear the phrase ‘Strategic Doing,’ they sometimes try to correct us: “You mean strategic planning, right?”

Well-meaning though the question is, that’s exactly what we don’t mean. Strategic Doing is a response to the failures of strategic planning, failures that many of us have only too much experience with: months spent in meetings arguing about vision statements, goals vs. objectives, and precise timelines. Too often those plans reach full flower in a beautifully-rendered binder or book…only to never again see the light of day.

Strategic planning was designed for a specific type of organization: one that is hierarchical in nature, in which a few at the top can decide what needs to be done and direct others to do it – the military, or an Mad Men-esque corporate environment. It assumes that the environment in which the organization operates is stable, or at least predictable.

Needless to say, this is not the world we live in anymore. Instead, the problems that most organizations face are ones that can only be solved by a network of people, often people from multiple entities (whether companies, governmental bodies, educational institutions, or non-profit organizations). There is no one person – or even a small group of people – that can issue a set of orders to “fix” the problem, even if that group could agree on what the solution is.  Innovations (technological and otherwise) seem to appear and take hold overnight – “disruption” has become the norm, not the exception.

This is the dilemma which Strategic Doing was designed to address. We first pioneered the approach in Oklahoma City in the early 1990s, when Lab director Ed Morrison was engaged to work with a group of civic leaders that wanted to revive their downtown. There was no question there was a problem – when Ed met with the group, he was the only guest in the largest hotel downtown. But the problems were so challenging that it was clear the old strategic planning playbook wasn’t going to cut it.

Instead, the Oklahoma City group took stock of what they did have – their assets – and how they could combine and leverage them. They took small steps, piloted new ideas, learned from both successes and failures, and expanded as they went. The 1995 bombing slowed, but did not stop, their efforts. Today, the city’s downtown is vibrant and thriving.

Ed next tried replicating Oklahoma City’s success in Charleston, South Carolina. Although Charleston has long had a strong tourism sector, leaders wanted to grow in ways that would do more than just create more low-skill, low-wage jobs. The Charleston Digital Corridor effort led to investments in fledgling software and other high-technology companies – and a #2 ranking among mid-size cities for its support of entrepreneurs.

But could this new approach be scaled? The Workforce Innovation in Regional Development (WIRED) initiative in north-central Indiana put the hypothesis to the test. This effort guided the distribution of $15 million in US Department of Labor funding in four areas: talent development, entrepreneurship development, cluster development, and regional leadership Over 60 new collaborations were launched as part of WIRED. The project exceeded federal goals by a factor of three, and over 80% of the new projects continued after the initial funding ended.

Want to know more? Download Ed’s paper on the failure of strategic planning and the birth of Strategic Doing.