One of the things that has come out of the complexity debate has been the relevance or not of organisational strategies.  Having a strategic plan is important.  Important for getting the whole organisation to move in the same direction, for getting funding, for communicating with stakeholders, for regulatory purposes…..  Just not always for actually doing the work.

© Mbortolino / iStock

© Mbortolino / iStock

We write strategies based on a future vision of the world as we want it to be, not based on the world as it is or is likely to be in five years time.  And we only do five year plans to match the lifetime of most parliaments around the world, not the needs of our organisations or those that we want to support or serve.

Reality isn’t a really sexy subject these days, but it is worth taking a moment to think about how quickly those carefully crafted strategic plans can go wrong when you actually start doing the work.  The argument that complexity theorists would put forward is that there is a better way to design a strategy and that is to base it on what people are most likely to actually do or respond – using something called agent based modelling.  I’ve mentioned this approach before, but in simple terms its a modelling approach that uses individuals as the basis for predicting what would happen in any given situation when external factors (interventions) of one kind or another are introduced.  Over time these modelling approaches have become more and more accurate and are now being applied to international development issues (especially climate change).

These are the complex high-end solutions that will not suit all NGOs everywhere.  But you can start to think about and plan your strategy differently by:

  • using feedback loops,
  • doing more research and development to understand how your beneficiary community operates, what its priorities are and why it works in the way that it does,
  • understanding what programmes or services can actually attract funding that supports your vision (not the vision of the donor),
  • getting the right people to implement and deliver your work, and
  • remaining focused on your long term objective, outcome or aim

How do the strategies that your organisation design work?  How often don’t they work?  How relevant is your organisation’s strategy to the work on the ground?


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