I recently finished adrienne maree brown’s amazing book, Emergent Strategy. The book is part facilitation instruction manual, part celebration of all things nerd-dom, and part glorious celebration of the interconnectedness and mutual dependence of our shared existence. brown weaves a beautiful narrative, defying genres and yet somehow successfully fulfilling the needs of people hoping to explore some pretty specific genres.
brown defines emergent strategy as, “how we intentionally change in ways that grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for.” What initially struck me in that definition was the word intentional. Throughout the book, brown describes adaptation and change as being responsive and purposeful. She isn’t talking about change for change’s sake – or, as Chris McGoff references in his book The Primes, distraction through “bright and shiny objects.” She’s talking about change informed by relationships, experience, and living purposefully in the process.
Process is one of my favorite topics to mull over on sleepless nights. More specifically, I find myself thinking about the connectedness of process, inclusion, and strategy. Below is a list in which I articulate their interconnectedness and how it plays out in the workplace.
- By definition, process is “a series of actions or operations conducing to an end.” A business process is “a collection of related, structured activities or tasks… which in a specific sequence produce a service or product (serves a particular business goal) for a particular customer or customers.” Process, by definition, is task-oriented, concrete, and in service of something else.
Pay attention to the way I phrased the last clause: “in service of something else.” In my experience, because process involves service, it is often viewed as inferior to other aspects of an organization’s work, particularly when mentioned alongside strategy. Intentionality, planning, thoroughness – though these characteristics are essential to the success of organizational strategy, they are inexplicably seen as the antithesis of vision, strategic thinking, and innovation. Process is something that most aspirational leaders prefer to delegate to others – especially women – and a distaste for process is often touted as a sign of one’s leadership capabilities. More on this in a bit.
- Simultaneously, leaders have [finally and rightfully] sounded the call for more inclusion in the workplace. The irony is this: you cannot be inclusive if you ignore process. Process helps us create the tools that execute our intention to uphold our stated values. In order to execute on our shared values, we need to ensure that we create processes that maximize the involvement of diverse stakeholders. If we say that we value inclusion, but we do not provide time and space to plan for how we will be inclusive, our words are empty. If we say we value inclusion, but we don’t create plans that allow for the full, authentic participation of diverse stakeholders, we will never create inclusive spaces.
Let’s say that a team leader has a new idea and they want to roll it out at the next leadership meeting. The leader has some choices to make. They could go through the steps to build a structure around their idea on their own, but most leaders know that they won’t get traction if it’s just their ideas that are being presented.
The leader could also build out their idea collaboratively. Here is where process comes in. The easy way to build out an idea collaboratively would be to present it to a select few individuals when it’s convenient. Typically, this would be during one-on-ones or other pre-scheduled opportunities. The more time-consuming and process-oriented method to build out an idea would look and feel different. It would not be convenient, because it would involve actively seeking out divergent thoughts and opinions – in other words, it would require that the leader be inclusive of perspectives that differ from their own.
Intentional inclusion would require the leader to focus on process. How will they ensure that they are getting different perspectives? How will they provide space for all voices to be heard? How long will it take to lift up all of these voices? How long will it take to even get all of these people at the same table? What are the steps needed to get the people at the table? What will they do once they get all of these people together? What will follow up be like? How will they allow for people to give feedback after the meeting is done?
Let’s go back to the concept that I mentioned earlier – process as inferior to strategy. If you view process as inherently boring or inferior, chances are you didn’t make it through two of the questions from the list in the preceding paragraph. If you didn’t make it through two of those questions, how can you allow for sufficient time and space to create an inclusive process to support your “bright and shiny” idea? Similarly, if you view process as inferior to other forms of work – or if you, like many male leaders, outsource it to females – how can you ensure that what you create is inclusive of multiple perspectives – male and female, leadership and junior staff, introvert and extrovert? And a lack of process isn’t always intentionally exclusive. Sometimes – and almost always with excuses related to time or other priorities – it unintentionally falls by the wayside. But if you are too disinterested or too busy to plan for and participate in an inclusive process, how will your efforts create inclusion in your workplace?
- Relatedly, if you are not inclusive through intentional process, how will any of your efforts be strategic? When we go back to brown’s definition of emergent strategy – “how we intentionally change in ways that grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for” – we now note two other striking words: “we” and “grow.” Truly liberating strategy only emerges when our “we” is inclusive – when we are brave and wise enough to intentionally involve colleagues whose ideas may differ from our own so that we may adapt, emerge, and truly “grow” together.*
Involving divergent ideas through intentional process is a strategic decision. Indeed, it is the only way that an organization can create impactful strategy – a shared strategy, an emergent strategy that comes from honest relationships with others. These relationships develop slowly, mindfully, through moments of shared mundanity and brilliance.
Let’s pretend that in the example mentioned above the leader with the bright and shiny idea decided that process was an unnecessary burden. Rather than thinking about who to include, how to include them, and how to put input into action, the leader decided that they had enough input from their closest supporters and then moved forward with selling and implementing their initiative. Their idea may be doable, but would implementing the initiative be strategic? In other words, the initiative didn’t consider all perspectives that were gathered through an inclusive, emergent process – so where is the “we” and the “grow”?
I’m reminded of a story that I heard when I participated in a training at the Center for Equity & Inclusion in Portland. We learned about a well-intentioned (and well-heeled) philanthropy that decided that one of the communities it was serving really needed a particular service. They spent tens of thousands of dollars creating the service, putting the infrastructure in place to deliver it, advertising the initiative… and ultimately, asking members of the community why no one was using it. What the philanthropy discovered was that the community didn’t really want the service; their needs were being met in other ways, and the service didn’t take into account their values or priorities. To the community, because the philanthropy had eschewed an inclusive process, their new and shiny idea was neither visionary, nor strategic, nor innovative. It’s as though the philanthropy had the brilliant idea to create a down coat for a goose, only to discover that they should have asked the goose if he needed it. Perhaps if they had spoken to the goose, they would have had the chance to learn, grow, and emerge as a more strategic organization.
Careful process isn’t inferior work; it’s work that builds community and creates growth. Giving space for process allows organizations to hear divergent voices. Elevating all voices gives colleagues the chance to intentionally co-create, and this leads to truly innovative strategy.
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*Here, I will make my own nerdy reference, to an episode of Dr. Who. When I think about being willing to learn through growth and change, I am reminded of the following scene. A character says to Dr. Who, “I will not change my mind,” to which he responds, “Then you will die stupid.” Better to admit you’re wrong, grow, and become a little bit smarter/more strategic, than to die stupid.