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7 New Year's Resolutions for the Emergent Strategist

Since the release of Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World, we've heard from so many of you about the ways in which you've been practicing emergent strategy. In the spirit of peer learning and in the early days of a brave new year, we thought this was an opportune moment to share some practical resolutions so we can all ensure we are being emergent this year. Please add your own resolutions to this list so we can co-create an even better one.

Resolve to be dogged about the destination, but not the exact path to get there.  Emergent strategy is all about being resolute on what one seeks to achieve, but being adaptive in how to get there. Just last week, the Gates Foundation launched an innovative new campaign for vaccines by partnering with 36 artists. While I was not there when the latest three-year vaccine strategy was written, I am going to go out on a limb and assume partnering with artists was not part of the initial theory of action. And yet, as global skepticism on vaccines has grown, this kind of campaign may be just what the doctor ordered.

Resolve to ask questions more so than to demand answers. Funders are very good at asking what happened at the end of a grant. Indeed, they have a duty to ask this. But equally, if not more important, is to ask why and how results were achieved, or not. In that spirit, the Hewlett Foundation recently changed its approach to grantee reporting in a key initiative to shift from just accountability for results to better understanding the hypotheses that grantees are working with. In their own words: “To help establish the right learning dynamics, we would like you to situate what you will be measuring and how you will be measuring it in the context of the hypotheses your work is in effect testing.”

Resolve to go with the flow in your community. Particularly if you’re a funder rooted in place, sometimes the best thing to do for your community is nowhere in your original action plan. Take the situation in Detroit in the last few years. The city’s bankruptcy was threatening vital community assets, including the pensions of retired city employees and the treasured Detroit Institute of Arts. So several foundations led the charge for a grand bargain to save these assets, including the Kresge Foundation, which contributed a stunning $100 million. Were “city employee pensions” in their latest strategic plan? Probably not. But when local momentum shifts in drastic ways, plans need to shift accordingly.

Resolve to think in systems, not just about individual grants. Emergent strategy embraces that all activity is part of a larger system and that the larger system must be carefully understood and watched. A fantastic example is the Hewlett Foundation’s recent mapping of the system of representative democracy. This mapping includes a comprehensive view of the system the foundation is trying to influence, and shows where specific grants are active in that system. It is also just super fun to play with!

Resolve to listen. Really listen. All funders know they need to listen to their grantees. And all funders are doing so in some way shape or form. However, reading grantee reports or picking up the phone once a year to talk to grantees does not listening make. The Kellogg Foundation is a great example of doing this well. Under the header of “Listen.Learn.Lead” the Foundation recently brought together – over three days – its 25 Mississippi Young Men of Color grantees. But not just grantees. The gathering also included young men of color. Listening to the ultimate beneficiaries of funder’s efforts should be a resolution on everyone’s list.

Resolve to build the fitness of the system. We talk a lot about system fitness in emergent strategy. We talk about building connective tissue among actors. We talk about building the capacity of system. We talk about creating tools the whole system can benefit from. A great illustration of building system fitness is how the Wallace Foundation approaches each of its key initiatives. For example, in School Leadership, the foundation published three powerful tools just in Q4 of 2014: principal supervisor tools, a partnership guide for school districts and principal training providers, and practical insights on the role of the principal supervisor. Moreover, the foundation has created peer learning communities among six urban school districts that are being funded to develop a larger corps of effective school principals and to determine whether this improves student achievement.

Resolve to make U-turns if needed. Learning and adapting. That’s at the heart of emergent strategy. This includes creating a culture that enables admittance of mistakes and encourages course correction. I was so impressed when the C&A Foundation launched a report a few months back on its efforts to improve the lives of workers in the apparel industry. The report openly acknowledges failure and lessons learned and does so with great humility. Let’s all resolve to share our bumps in the road this year. Our peers and partners can benefit much more from that than from long lists of successes.

We hope this list is a helpful thought starter. What are your 2015 resolutions?

Valerie Bockstette

Former Managing Director, FSG