A strategy is not a plan like the one we make for a funding proposal. That is an operational plan and includes measurable outcomes and a (usually) cynically specific set of steps for reaching those outcomes.
A strategy is a framework for thinking about two realities we can’t avoid in our advocacy work:
- The future is always unpredictable
- We only have limited resources (people, technology, energy, money, spirit)
If the future was predictable and we had more resources than we could ever use in 100 years, we could create an operational plan and achieve our goals every time. All we would have to do is get good at writing logic models.
But the reality isn’t set up that way. Because of the mismatch between how we are required to plan and reality, we often scale back the outcomes in our operational plans to make sure we reach them so that we can continue to get funding or praise or organization and personal stature. Avoiding failure is more important than depth of impact.
This is a reasonable response to a system and a society that believes change can reliably be produced like candy bars in a factory. So, once you have the right technique (the right change plan), you can crank change out forever.
A strategy allows you to create variability in the face of the unexpected. Operational plans suppress variability in the name of predictable outcomes. However useful predictable outcomes are in seeking funding, variability is the way you survive over the long term.
The best example of using variability to keep playing the game you want to play is evolution.
Evolution isn’t about creating the perfect organism, though we tend to interpret it that way because of our basic human narcissism. Evolution is about generating variability so that no matter what happens, life will continue.
The hummingbird and the flower have evolved to match one another so that need and opportunity become a single integrated process. The results of this evolutionary matching (the outcomes of the plan as it were) aren’t in the organism, they are the relationship between organism and environment. This relationship (an outcome in the larger strategy of evolution) is a complex system that ages over time. Every complex system (including our advocacy and the targets of our advocacy) is the expression of a kind of operational plan, the same kind that we often confuse with a strategy.
So, evolution is a strategy and each expression of its framework is an operational plan. All operational plans eventually collapse. But the evolutionary strategy continues.
So, how do we build a strategy?