“It’s What Ya Know That Just Ain’t So” – Strategic Planning and Complex Challenges

For over a year, I’ve been consulting with managers and staff at a Federal regulatory compliance agency, on their evolving strategic plan. Several factors, including employer power in a down economy, and the fear of immigrant employees (legal or otherwise), have made enforcement and compliance more difficult than ever. 

In working with this group, I have talked with them about several different ways to think about planning– and its “partner” — evaluation/measurement. 

We learn and think together about:

— what aspects of the challenges are fully known, or knowable?

— what aspects of the challenges are not now knowable?

— who we can invite to talk with and learn from, to improve our knowledge and understanding (and thereby, improve the odds of successful outcomes)?

— how can we overcome the “fear factor” — typically fear of failure — as we act into ambiguity and uncertainty?

— what are the core values and operating principles that can best assess our set of promising options in facing our most complex challenges?

— what are the ways to assess and measure outcomes, both for challenges in known/knowable domains, and in unknowable problems?

— how will we learn continuously together, to improve our adaptive capacity and results?

— how will we hold ourselves and each other accountable for acting in congruence with the core values and operating principles we express?


As I tell people, it’s important to learn “The Problem With Problems” (that they come in different types, which require different patterns of response for optimal results), and avoid “The Single Biggest Problem” (treating unknowable complex challenges as if they were technical and solvable).

In this, I am reminded of a quote which I believe is attributed to Will Rogers: 

“It ain’t what ya know that gets ya in trouble. It’s what ya know, that just ain’t so.”

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