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Thought Thursdays
Strategic problem-solving: A collective conversation over time


Recently the Mail & Guardian ran an article based on former Constitutional Court judge Albie Sachs’s latest book “We, the People: Insights of an Activist Judge” (Wits University Press) in which he points out that the South African constitution was not only the work of Mandela and De Klerk but of hundreds of people over a period of six years. The article caused me to reflect on how we disappear much of the ordinary process of strategy making in the formal PowerPoint presentations and in attribution to individual heroic leaders. We thus give away our own power to shape our future and underplay the important work we do – and need to do – as we go about our ordinary business in day-to-day conversations with team members and peers.

Ralph Stacey, a management scholar and engineer, named this conversational perspective the complex responsive process (CRP) of change. It can be seen when we pay attention to the to and fro of conversation and action in ordinary day-to-day living and working, just like Albie Sachs describes happened with the cocreation of the South African constitution. CRP challenges each leader to be curious about the role he or she is playing in strategic change: Am I mindlessly producing ‘strategic PowerPoints’ or am I engaging thoughtfully in the process of change, taking each local conversation seriously as part of the “dialogue dance” through which we construct our organisations? 

Right now we are simultaneously living through multiple challenges in southern Africa: drought, weak governance, extreme inequality, massive infrastructure and service delivery shortfalls, and others. Leaders will look at these factors as strategic issues, and even develop scenarios with trigger and risk flags relating to them, but often refrain from asking how their own business might be helping to create or perpetuate these challenges.

However, thoughtful engagement with the contextual economic, environmental, social and governance risks in our increasingly resource-constrained world is fast becoming critical for maintaining sustainable competitiveness, organisational longevity and performance. But how should this be done constructively? It can be overwhelming and complex. And, if not managed carefully, can lead a management team up garden paths of fruitless and abstract talk shops that do not contribute value to the organisation nor its stakeholders. 

Several approaches are being pioneered – Nedbank worked out its Fair Share of lending for a sustainable economy, Woolworths works with their suppliers on the Good Business Journey, and Santam partners with local authorities to build resilience both in disaster risk and infrastructure decision making. What these approaches have in common is that they are in essence ongoing conversations between departments in organisations, between organisations, and between the organisations and their stakeholders in the broader world to explore and pioneer new ways of creating shared value and addressing the complex problems of our time. 

Peter Willis, Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership senior associate and strategic conversation specialist, suggests that our complex, systemic challenges call for approaches that reflect and respect that complexity. Instead of asking specialists to provide an analysis and recommendations for action, rather assemble a small, highly diverse group of people who are not expert in the particular challenge and give them enough time and support to dialogue their way through to an understanding of the challenge and its possible resolutions. This will inevitably involve engagement with the experts and any others they think relevant, but all of it should be done through dialogue and person-to-person enquiry.

In Willis’s experience, this starting with a fresh, blank slate and then enquiring and dialoguing until a deep sense emerges in the collective group awareness might well be our best hope of breaking through to genuinely new and potent insights that help us resolve some of our most intractable societal problems.

I think that this perspective on change and problem-solving is also what Albie Sachs and Ralph Stacey are talking about. Such small workgroups have great potential. As the great anthropologist Margaret Mead said: “Never believe that a few caring people can't change the world. For, indeed, that's all who ever have.”

As a leader you are also a strategist, and a member of a team who can engage and explore new solutions. I highly recommend that you ask yourself the following questions:
  • Am I participating in the strategy process and contributing to my organisation’s strategic conversation in a manner that supports learning and forward momentum? 
  • Am I aware of my context and the broader challenges and opportunities? How can I work with others to tackle the grand challenges that matter to me, my organisation, and my world?
  • Am I looking for “heroes” with “answers” when all I need to do is to be present, truly engage and avidly converse?

Vanessa Otto-Mentz is head of the Group Strategy Unit at Santam and is a NBS SA Leadership Council member. She facilitates sustainability leadership workshops with USB-ED, and teaches Strategic Management on USB’s MBA programme. Her areas of expertise are strategy, sustainability and organisational change.

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