Kevin, the COO of a medium-sized Oregon food company and a long time client of ours, called recently sounding frazzled.

Given that Kevin is usually so affable, his tone of voice immediately signaled that something was up. A few days later we met him at our favorite coffee shop where he explained that he simply had “no bandwidth,” as he put it, to respond to his board’s request for a new 3-5 year strategic plan reflecting current market conditions.

“I know my board members feel anxious about the market, we all do. But how can I confidently predict how things might change over the next five years?” he asked. “Five years ago I couldn’t imagine where we’d be now - with changing technology, global distribution, and all of it. How do we keep up? How can I even make an ‘educated’ guess?”

Once a key player in the Pacific NW for their industry, the company now has a group of smaller, more nimble competitors nibbling at their heels, offering gourmet-style products and capturing the cream of their customers. A highly distributed delivery system, union issues, employee turnover from snowballing boomer retirements, and inadequate, aging facilities contributed to Kevin’s daily dose of stress. He was so lost “in the soup” at the moment that not only did he feel unable to provide answers, but as our frazzled COO said, “I barely even know the right questions.”

Of course, Kevin’s company already had a strategic plan developed by the senior leadership team some years back. The dilemma was that nothing was happening the way they had anticipated and they found themselves living in the swirl of what some people call the VUCA world. In this increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environment how does Kevin or you or anyone get a handle on what to expect? Can we predict anything? Are there tools or methods or new ways to think that are useful?

Those of us working at the intersection of the complexity sciences and human systems (like organizations) think the answer to these questions are: yes, yes, and yes. What we have learned upends all of our previous assumptions about the “right” way to envision and plan for the future. Hallowed traditions, such as strategic planning using the well-established Michael Porter “Five Forces” model, just don’t work in today’s marketplace, if they ever did.

New tools drawn from the complexity sciences like systems-thinking, pattern analysis, and the adaptive action model, while deceptively simple on the surface, can lead to rich insights.In turn, these insights lead to quicker, more nimble adjustments to ever-changing conditions.

We showed Kevin how we could use the adaptive action model to frame his response to the board. At its basic level, this model asks three questions:

  • What is the current reality?
  • So what are the implications?
  • Now what next action shall we take?

The model assumes rapid iterations and constant re-evaluation. Adaptive action builds the ability to shift and modify using data from one cycle of “what, so what, now what” to inform the next steps and the next. The model is discussed more fully in a newly published book by our colleagues,Adaptive Action: Leveraging uncertainty in your organization by Eoyang and Holladay.

We could almost see a light bulb going on in Kevin’s mind. Here was a place to start. Using adaptive action, he could provide a process that incorporated the kind of nimbleness and flexibility he knew the company needed to strengthen and thrive. It was simple without being simplistic. It demanded and supported agile thinking. His temporary brain freeze lifted, and he was ready to develop a proposal to take back to the company’s board. We all ordered more tea and got to work.