The History of Strategic Doing

Purdue Agile Strategy Lab director Ed Morrison tells the story of how Strategic Doing was developed:

The seeds of Strategic Doing were planted over 30 years ago on Capitol Hill of all places. Coming out of college, I landed a job as a legislative assistant to an Ohio Congressman. In that job, I confronted the first really complex challenge of globalization in the post-World War II era: an Arab oil embargo.  As latest addition to our legislative staff, I drew the short straw. I became responsible for designing energy policies set encouraged renewables and conservation.  At the same time, other shifts were occurring to alter the performance of our economy. Significant reductions in trade barriers enabled Japanese companies to challenge major US manufacturers for the first time. Even more complex challenges emerged as steel plants closed and other U.S manufacturers faced intense competition for the first time. Through a decade of slow growth and high inflation, the competitiveness of the American economy began to erode.

This complex challenge – how do we improve the productivity and competitiveness of the American economy – became the focus of my early career. For nearly a decade, I joined a small army of people looking for answers in Washington. The notion was straightforward. If Washington pulled the right policy levers, we could set the economy on the right course. We did not discover the answer, of course. Instead, Washington politics began the long decent into an ideological standoff between Republicans and Democrats.[1]

Although discouraging, I had the opportunity to learn from some impressive professionals at the National Science Foundation about how to accelerate technology development with smart government incentives. Lou Tournatzky led the Innovation Processes Research Group at NSF and introduced me to important lessons of how universities and industry can accelerate innovation.  Roland Tibbets taught me the logic behind the Small Business Innovation Research program.[2] Insights from Lou and Roland played an important role in shaping our later work at Purdue.

In the end, my Capitol Hill experiences would not bring me much closer understanding how we could build a more competitive, prosperous economy.  To learn more, I left a senior position with the Senate Democratic Policy Committee and took a job with a corporate strategy consulting firm, an offshoot of the Boston Consulting Group. In that position, I was able to see how corporations were restructuring their manufacturing operations by building global manufacturing networks. On a practical level, most of this work involved projects in which our consulting team recommended the shutdown of US manufacturing facilities. These manufacturing operations moved to lower cost economies, such as Mexico, Taiwan and Singapore.

Not surprisingly, these decisions excluded any consideration of the communities and regions left behind. After three years, I decided to establish my own consulting practice focused on helping communities and regions adjust to the growing pressures of global competition. The premise of my practice, which began in the mid-1980s, was simple. The strategic planning models that I had been using inside US companies could be adapted to meet the challenges of communities and regions.

After nearly a decade of work, I concluded that while these models could be used, they are very expensive. The process of moving strategy into implementation took years and could not be easily shared or scaled. I distilled these lessons in an article for the National Academy of Sciences publication, Issues in Science and Technology.[3]

The early 1990s found me in Singapore where I had a chance conversation with the chief technology officer of an Internet company with which I was consulting. A physicist by training, he advised me that the coming Internet would change everything. He suggested, as well, that if I really wanted to understand how communities and regions could adjust to the new era of the Internet, I should understand how open source software worked. He explained how open software development involves a loosely coupled network of individuals working together to complete complex projects in an environment when nobody can tell anybody else what to do.

So, I dove into learning about open source software development. As I did, a new model of strategy begin to take shape. Oklahoma City provided the opportunity to test out some early ideas when the Chamber of Commerce selected me to guide the development of a regional economic development strategy for the business community. At the time, Oklahoma City had been through more than a decade of stagnation. The collapse of oil prices in the early 1980s blew a hole in the regional economy. The lack of economic diversification meant that civic leaders had no engines on which to rely to pull the economy forward.

We began the Oklahoma City project with a new approach to strategy, an approach inspired by open source software development. The central idea was to experiment and begin implementation of ideas as soon as possible. In addition, we established a regular monthly meeting in which we evaluated our progress and set a path forward for the next 30 days. These “30/30 meetings” have become a key feature of Strategic Doing.

Equally important, we established a core team to design and manage the strategy process. This step underscored an important insight. Strategy became less focused on a thing – a strategy document – and more focused on a process of experimentation – testing ideas by putting them into action. We marked our progress with what we called a “strategic action plan”, and like software, we updated it frequently. Over four years, we began to see remarkable transformations taking place, as we built on the significant assets within Oklahoma City.[4]

At the same time, I was working in Oklahoma City, the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development engaged me with a different challenge. Over four years, these Kentucky experiences also provided an early proving ground for my emerging approach to strategy. In Kentucky, we developed a fast strategy process focused on distressed rural counties. It worked as follows.

A distressed county applied to participate in the program. We selected three or four counties a year. For each, we assembled a team of five or six economic development professionals from around the state. The team conducted a two day visit during which we identified the assets that could serve as the foundation for a new stage of economic development. At the end of two days, we delivered a short strategic action plan with a six-month time horizon. We charged the civic leaders with the responsibility to implement. We also committed to return in six months to measure their progress.

Over five years, we developed 22 county strategies. The Cabinet later found that 18 of these 22 counties had made measurable progress. In sum, we learned the value of clear, concise action plans grounded in practical next steps. Equally important, I learned the limits of outside consultants. While we could guide, we could not do: the expertise needed to translate ideas into action was located inside the county, not outside. No consultant or consulting team could accumulate enough expertise to execute a strategy.

Another lesson emerged from this Kentucky work: the value of just doing. When people moved from talking to doing, I noticed a couple of changes. First, they started new conversations. Instead of continually chewing over old arguments, they started focusing on the practical steps they needed to take together. As they did, new relationships began to form. People interacted in new ways. They started feeling better about themselves. When we returned for the six-month check-up, we found a new spirit of shared accomplishment.

Another early experiment involved Charleston, South Carolina. While working for the Chamber of Commerce, Ernest Andrade, a member of the City’s economic development staff, approached me with an idea. He felt strongly that regional economic development efforts were too narrowly focused on recruiting large manufacturing firms to the region. Ernest saw another opportunity: Charleston could develop a rich ecosystem of support for early-stage high-technology companies. Using a simple map that we developed based on our work in Oklahoma City, Ernest began implementing a strategy to build the Charleston start-up ecosystem. Within three years, it was clear that Ernest was on track to convert Charleston into a technology hotspot. Now the Charleston Digital Corridor ranks nationally as a technology hot spot.

From roughly 1994 to 2005, I struggled to understand how we could design a new approach to strategy that embedded the lessons of open source software development. How could I line up what I was learning in the field with what academics were learning? I read widely about the early hackers at MIT, the remarkable work of Linus Torvalds, and the emergence of complexity science at the Santa Fe Institute. I became familiar with the work of Brian Arthur, an economist exploring the frontier of a new discipline, complexity economics, and Scott Page explained complex adaptive systems and the value of diversity in teams. Mark Granovetter introduced me to social network analysis and the power of weak ties. AnnaLee Saxenian effectively used networks to explain the difference in the regional economies in Silicon Valle and Rte 128 around Boston. Aaron Beck explained cognitive behavioral therapy, the powerful practice of mental framing, and the connection of framing to emotions and behavior.  Martin Seligman amplified this work with the emerging field of positive psychology. Donella Meadows, Peter Senge explained systems thinking and the importance of feedback loops for adaptation and resilience. Management thinkers Henry Mintzberg, Michael Porter, Ralph Stacey, Eric Bienhocker, and Kathleen Eisenhardt grappled with the shifting sands underneath business strategy.

 

By 2005, all this thinking began to come together. I concluded that this new strategy discipline, which I began calling Strategic Doing, could be replicated. Oklahoma City, distressed rural counties in Kentucky, and the Charleston Digital Corridor all relied on a methodology that I had developed based on my study of open-source software development. The task ahead involved learning how to teach this discipline to others. To do that, I moved into the university.

Case Western Reserve University was my first stop. There, I met David Cooperrider and learned about Appreciative Inquiry.  I explored how that discipline could inform the emerging methodology of Strategic Doing.  David taught me a powerful lesson: people move in the direction of their conversations. David’s insight opened a new door. Our challenge in teaching Strategic Doing involves teaching people how to design and guide their own strategic conversations.

As head of the Center for Regional Economic Issues at CWRU, I was fortunate to be guided by two mentors: David Morgenthaler and Dick Pogue.  David was an iconic venture capitalist. He established one of the first firms in the venture capital industry in the United States.  Dick, as managing partner of the Jones Day law firm, led the firm’s global expansion.  As we sat down for regular lunches, both imparted some wisdom to me.

David encouraged me to simplify my messages. To understand how economic transformation happens, he told me to rely on technology S curves, a powerful explanatory device. To explain how a regional economy thrives, he told me to describe the process in terms of three flows of money: good, neutral and bad. I adopted both ideas, and they have proven themselves remarkably helpful. Meanwhile, Dick continuously pushed me to move my ideas into action.  He gave me the lesson that his mentor had given him. Do not be deterred by the negative voices: “Press on, regardless”.

After two years at CWRU, I moved on to Purdue University to join a newly established Purdue Center for Regional Development, under the leadership of Sam Cordes and Vic Lechtenberg. Sam and Vic gave us the freedom and a platform to experiment with this new approach to strategy.

Scott Hutcheson, Peggy Hosea and I began building Strategic Doing into a discipline with the explicit purpose of learning how to teach others.  Our first opportunity came when Scott landed a $15 million grant from the US Department of Labor to redesign our regional workforce system. Over the course of four years, we launched over 60 collaborations. We created an Opportunity Fund, a seed fund to stimulate these collaborations.  With Vic’s guidance, we designed a methodology to keep tight control over the funding while providing the flexibility for collaborations to form and experiment. We adopted many of the lessons that I had accumulated over the years.  The three most important include:

  • Assembling a core team to manage the strategy process;
  • Designing an agile process to include frequent 30/30 reviews;
  • Staging public investment (our Opportunity Fund) by following the model designed by Roland Tibbets for the Small Business Innovation Research program.

Importantly, we also followed a lesson embedded in a 2001 article in the Harvard Business Review. Written by Kathleen Eisenhardt and Donald Sull, the article advises that strategy in complex environments involves a discipline of following simple rules.  We distilled this lesson into a simple formula. We decided to invest in collaborations that held the promise of being replicable, scalable, and sustainable.  To be investable, we defined a collaboration with equal simplicity: it must involve two or more organizations with activities covering two or more counties.

We generated dramatic success in applying these simple rules. We were one of 13 regions that the federal government funded to experiment with regional workforce innovation. Tin other words, we received 8% of the money allocated nationally. When the Department of Labor summarized the performance of all 13 regions, it turned out that we generated 40% of the national results.  Our proudest accomplishment, however, was that the vast majority of our collaborations continued past the initial funding.  In other words, we had successfully identified and invested in collaborations that were replicable, scalable, and sustainable.[5]

As news of our success began to spread, requests came into Purdue for workshops in which we could introduce the lessons we were learning. We continue to do these workshops, and we have been in 44 states and six foreign countries introducing this new approach to strategy in open, loosely connected networks. One of the most notable workshops took place in Milwaukee in July 2009. Our colleague at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Sam White, asked us to design and guide a workshop for emerging cluster in freshwater technology. Out of that workshop, a strategic action plan emerged to accelerate the development of the Water Council.  Commitments made at that workshop by two CEOs, Rich Meeusen of Badger Meter and Paul Jones of A.O. Smith, provided the foundation for what is now a globally recognized water cluster.

As this demand for workshops grew, we needed help. Sam Cordes suggested that we convene a group of people from around the country to develop an approach to teaching the discipline. We decided to convene at a location equally inconvenient for everyone: Bloomington, IL. Over fifteen professionals from around the country from Maine to California came to that first core team meeting. Out of that meeting we began to outline how to teach Strategic Doing. By 2010, we were conducting 2 day trainings in Strategic Doing.

In 2011, our core team, meeting in Turkey Run State Park in Indiana, focused on developing a set of principles – a credo – that formed the foundation of the Strategic Doing practice. By chance, Eleanor Boxham, a professional consultant and writer, asked to come to the core team meeting so she could learn more about Strategic Doing. During our first day together, we grappled with the elements of a credo. Overnight, Eleanor masterfully crafted the credo, which we have now used to guide our work.

In 2012, Bob Brown, a colleague from Michigan State University, asked us whether we could apply the lessons of Strategic Doing to the wicked challenges of devastated neighborhoods in Flint, Michigan. Specifically, Bob wanted to train community leaders to design and guide their own strategies for taking on challenges like reducing teenage homicide rates. Out of these early conversations, we designed Strategic Doing: The Game. We’ve now use the game as a regular way to introduce Strategic Doing.

Equally important, the core team in Flint provided us insight into the dynamics of how core teams form and operate effectively. Through a series of retreats at the Edward Lowe Foundation, we began exploring how a core team works. Our colleagues in Flint introduced to us a new approach to distributed leadership. We later learned that leadership theorists like Mary Uhl Behn were exploring complexity leadership theory as a way to explain how leadership emerges in complex networks.

In 2013, Liz Nilsen posed another challenge. Could we use Strategic Doing to introduce innovation and entrepreneurship to the undergraduate engineering programs across 50 universities? Over three years, Liz worked with us to develop an approach that meet this challenge. Working with Stanford University and VentureWell on an NSF grant, we designed a process to introduce Strategic Doing to three cohorts of university teams. Each team developed a strategic action plan during a two day retreat in Phoenix. An important innovation emerged from this work. We developed the Strategic Doing strategy map as a way for core teams to explain their strategy clearly and concisely. In 2015, we leveraged this work in engineering education to win an NSF award as part of its Revolutionizing Engineering Departments (RED) initiative. We are now embarked on a five year grant to transform the educational experiences in Purdue’s School of Mechanical Engineering.

By 2016, our growth outstripped the capacity of the Purdue Center for Regional Development to support it. With the Support of the Purdue Polytechnic Institute, Purdue Discovery Park and Purdue Engagement, we formed the Purdue Agile Strategy Lab.

[1]  See Morrison, E., (1975) “Energy Tax Legislation: The Failure of the 93rd Congress”, Harvard Journal on Legislation, 5 (2), pp. 369-414.

[2] See National Science Foundation, “The Birth & History of the SBIR Program. Retrieved on April 14, 2017 at http://bit.ly/2pFXzUA

[3] See Morrison E. (1987) “Cities in a Global Economy”, Issues in Science and Technology, 3 (4) (Summer 1987), pp. 42-51.

[4] The leadership in Oklahoma City has continued to follow this path. See Derek Thomson, “Why Oklahoma City Could Represent the Future of America”, The Atlantic Monthly, September 13, 2010. Retrieved on April 14, 2017 at http://theatln.tc/2pG37hE

[5] See Hutcheson, S. and Morrison, E., (2012), “Transforming Regions through Strategic DOING”, 2d Quarter 2012, retrieved on April 14, 2016 at http://bit.ly/sdwired