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Creating Economic and Social Value in Uncertain Times

6 Principles for Solving Complex Problems


“Creating Economic and Social Value in Uncertain Times” draws heavily from Babson’s Entrepreneurial Thought & Action® methodology as well as the Cheryls’ individual work and writing around leading for social value and the principles of social design. These are the key tenets of this integrated, ecosystem approach to shifting mindsets and taking action.

1. Begin with a specific, robust vision for where you want to go.

An inspiring vision becomes the North Star for any important effort. It must be concrete enough to be actionable, and be recognizable and measurable when it’s achieved. The vision is what attracts and sustains aligned action, becoming the measure of success. The North Star is an essential and unwavering element, allowing teams to pivot as necessary. This is a key element in navigating uncertainty. This was one of the first components the Cheryls integrated into the West Creek Ranch program. Participants needed to clearly articulate the vision and the promise each organization makes to all its stakeholders while working in an intentional rhythm of individual teamwork and plenary discussions.

2. Relationships are more important than transactions.

Both social and economic value are created through “breakthrough interactions” between people, not numbers on a spreadsheet. Breakthrough interactions reconfigure relationships in such a way that new and expanded social impacts and innovations come about not because of the what, but because of the who and the how. And in order to cultivate these, leaders need to focus on all kinds of relationships, including relationships with self, colleagues, partners, and the communities or constituents being served. Numerous approaches can be used to build awareness and skills, including building the practice of storytelling. At West Creek Ranch, the Cheryls adapted Marshall Ganz’s frameworks for “story of self,” “story of us,” and “story of now,” in the form of personal story slams in front of an after-dinner fire. Participants also shared more formal presentations about their organizations at the close of the program.

3. All change begins with language.

The power that words have to incite change, inspire support, or even go unnoticed cannot be overestimated. Language can be crucial to reframing challenges — inspiring different thinking that uncovers hidden opportunities. Organizations need to embrace different language so they can begin asking different questions that get to the heart of their purpose. To delve deep into solving a complex problem, ask a series of questions five times: Why? To what end? For whom?

4. Make the invisible visible.

Key to understanding the dynamics of complex problems and human relationships is understanding issues at a systems level and seeing the invisible forces that drive human behavior. By literally drawing these hidden dynamics and seeing them in context, people with diverse experience and worldviews develop a shared understanding of current reality and can act based on aligned strategies. Through exercises in mapping an organization’s ecosystem, teams can see their relationships to stakeholders with fresh eyes and discover potential new resources. For the West Creek Ranch participants, opportunities that had never been revealed presented themselves. They could see the dilemmas they were facing through a new lens and gained renewed perspective about what is possible.

5. Experimenting is more effective than long-term plans.

In uncertain times, and with complex problems, long-term plans don’t work well. Too much is unpredictable. Instead, what is needed is a process for making small experiments to test and refine direction based on real-time feedback. Prototyping is a hallmark of the creative process, and an infallibly effective way to move from theory to action without risk. There is no failure in prototyping, only learning. A prototype can take on many forms — from low to high resolution — and experiments ranging from a simple conversation to a detailed mock-up of an idea can provide important information for helping to move an idea forward. No action — no matter how large or small — is inconsequential.

6. The process is the strategy.

If this approach has a secret sauce, it is that simply participating in the process transforms people and brings them closer to their goals. When people come together in a diverse group, they learn from the collective wisdom brought by the cohort. When they practice skills of problem reframing, mapping, prototyping, and communicating for action, both individuals and organizations are changed by the experience. They become more comfortable sharing half-baked ideas that are helped to the finish line by the group. They bring the skills learned back to their organizations and apply them in different ways.

This content was paid for and created by Babson College / The Lewis Institute.

The editorial staff of The Chronicle had no role in its preparation.

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