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Using the right tools: How federal leaders can plan in complex, uncertain times

Do more with less. The only constant is change. The speed of work is increasing. Amazon has forever changed customer expectations. You’ve heard it all before. But beyond the platitudes and constraints, federal leaders need to know three things: how to define the outcomes they’ll pursue, how to plan their way, and how to evaluate whether they’re headed in the right direction.

Knowledge management expert Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework identifies four types of situations: simple, complicated, complex and chaotic. Though few would argue anything in government matches the definition of simple, the others describe what many federal managers face. Each requires different activities to envision outcomes, plan activities and measure results.

Simple Complicated Complex Chaotic
Desired outcomes identified through Simple mandates Analysis and goal-setting Storytelling, design thinking, scenario planning, guided imagery Storytelling, design thinking, scenario planning, guided imagery (as time permits)
Expressed as Performance targets SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) Big hairy audacious goal (BHAG), scenario of preferred future state Key attributes of desired future state
Achieved by Best practice and standard operating procedure Coordinated strategy Principles Consistent action (guided as much as possible by principles)
Evaluated through Performance measurement Evaluation of inputs, outputs, and outcomes (impact) Evaluation of principles. Are they:
● Meaningful?
● Adhered to?
● Appropriate?
● Principles
● Survival

In simple situations, the links between cause and effect are easy to observe. A particular action nearly always produces the same result. To achieve a desired outcome, you must simply do what works. In simple situations, set clear goals or performance standards, adopt best practices, and track performance over time. This, however, is typically at the operation level verses the strategic level.

In complicated situations, the causal chains are many, but they are known or at least knowable. Many different systems and components may need to work together, but they do so in ways that can be understood and predicted — at least by the experts.

To envision outcomes in complicated situations, set a “stretch target” that indicates superior performance, such as a big change in quality, cost, accuracy, etc. Articulate your target in terms of SMART (specific, measurable, assignable, reasonable, time-related) goals you can achieve by coordinating multiple initiatives, old and new, to achieve meaningful success, and develop a logic model that describes how they come together. To evaluate your work, measure the sufficiency of the inputs, the quality of the outputs, and the impactfulness of the outcomes.

In complex situations, causal chains may be unknowable, outcomes may be impossible to predict, and entities may co-evolve in unexpected ways. This may seem overwhelming, but complexity offers a greater opportunity space for the outcomes you can achieve.

In complex situations, SMART goals may not help you reach your full potential since they are bound by what you consider “reasonable” today. Instead, use techniques like storytelling, design thinking, scenario planning, and guided imagery to go beyond a linear extrapolation of known factors. Leverage both logic and imagination to create a meaningful statement, like a “big hairy audacious goal” (or BHAG) that requires timely opportunism as much as persistent effort.

Plan by identifying principles to guide you. A principle is a working hypothesis of the types of actions likely to bring about a desired result, but it prescribes no specific action. For example, once could act on the principle, “Involve those affected by the decision in the decision-making process,” alternatively by conducting an online stakeholder survey or by convening a large in-person gathering, whichever best fits the circumstances.

Evaluate principles to make sure they are meaningful to the people doing the work, that they are being adhered to, and that they are moving the agency toward the desired outcome. This requires new definitions and mechanisms of accountability, particularly in a governmental context where lawmakers and voters demand clear and quantifiable “accountability” for the results achieved. In complexity, the actions most aligned with the principles will not always achieve the desired result. Thus, greater transparency about the why, how and what of an agency’s strategic choices will likely become essential when the complexity of a situation overwhelms a thoughtful and well-executed strategy.

In chaotic situations, the planning tools of complex situations remain relevant, though you may not have as much time to do them. Identify at least the key attributes of a desired future state. Identify principles that will promote that desired future state once things settle down. For example, when battle plans break down, U.S. Marines are told to keep moving, seek the high ground, and stay in touch. Evaluate your principles when you can — perhaps only in brief stand-up meetings where colleagues clarify the current state of play and identify near-term coordinated actions. Beyond that, just do your best, and recognize that chaos will not last forever. At some point there will be an evaluation of what took place. All the more reason to adhere to your principles!

As federal departments and agencies begin to consider planning for their next four-year cycle, as required by the GPRA Modernization Act, the Cynefin Framework is a good place to begin. Not every situation requires the same planning model. Plans that do not match the need tend to sit idly on the shelf. Tailoring the approach will help ensure that the plan produces the desired results.

Eric Meade is principal of Whole Mind Strategy Group, which offers next-generation approaches to strategy, innovation, organization design and leadership. Emily Oehler is a director in Grant Thornton’s Strategy Practice, where she leads teams that deliver communications, change management and customer experience solutions to federal agencies.

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