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Mod. 4 - Emergent Strategies

Adrienne maree brown and Otto Scharmer share many themes about why strategy must be emergent, what defines intentional strategy and how to approach it as an individual group or community.

  • The material presented by brown and Scharmer is dense and provocative. What concepts percolate for you and why?

Describe an adaptive strategy experience that you’ve been a part of whether it is your own personal journey or part of a group/organization/community.

  • How did that experience unfold?

  • Did you approach transformation as described by these thought leaders including McCandless and Shartau? Why/why not?

A productive starting point for liberating strategy is anchored in six core questions. This set of questions is an approach called Strategy Knotworking. It introduces a dynamic, iterative, and adaptive way of planning with groups of any size. The questions are explored in order 1–2–3–4–5–6 but the answers order themselves as the relationships among the answers take shape.

1. Purpose: What is the fundamental justification & deepest need for our work?

2. Context: What is happening around us that demands creative change?

3. Challenge: What are the paradoxes we must face in order to make progress?

4. Baseline: Where are we starting, honestly?

5. Ambition: Given our purpose, what seems possible now?

6. Action and Evaluation: How are we acting our way toward the future, evaluating what is possible as we go?

  • What role did you play and how did you show up?

  • Did technologies play a role in the transformation process?

  • What are your questions and/or learnings from your experience, in the context of the ideas and practices presented by brown and Scharmer?


Many of the concepts shared by brown and Scharmer resonated with me. I’ve chosen the ones that are actively speaking to me in three different forms; Validating, Grappling, Searching.

Validating: From brown, “Never a failure, always a lesson” and Scharmer, “Realigning our attention with intention.”

These two concepts are very validating for me because I’ve felt and tried to implement them in my own life for a very long time. Whether it was working through disappointment when I didn’t get a job I really wanted or realizing I hadn’t performed as well as I wanted on an assignment or project at work, I’ve learned to view each failure as an opportunity to change my perspective and learn lessons from the experience to take into the next endeavor.

This correlates with Scharmer’s concept to “realign our attention with intention.” Said another way related to theories of crisis management: “Practice being proactive instead of reactive.” There are so many efforts to win the attention of people today. If we are not intentional about what we pay attention to, we become the victim, and frankly the success, of someone else’s intention. I realized this a number of years ago after I saw numerous colleagues and friends wind up in jobs or relationships in which they were miserable. When I asked them how they got there, they said “I never really thought too much about it.” Once I picked my jaw up off the floor, I realized that I never wanted to find myself in that situation. Working in the arts, I sometimes think about this concept as “curation” or “orchestration.” Meaning, we have to curate or orchestrate the experiences and lives we want to have and build out the roadmap that allows us to get there. I remember telling myself at my first full-time job in the arts that I wanted to be running an arts organization by the time I was 35. While most people looked at me like I was crazy, I’m currently writing this as a 34-year old Executive Director of a small chamber orchestra.

Grappling: From brown, “Trust the people” and “Move at the speed of trust.” And from Scharmer “Learn from the future as it emerges.”

I’m currently chewing on, wrestling or grappling with my current ability to synthesize these principles from brown and Scharmer. In today’s culture, I’m generally suspicious of most people. With the rise of “Scam Culture” I am cautious of being too trusting, lest I become yet another victim and statistic the media broadcasts on the nightly news, launching another scammer into notoriety and the topic of a new Netflix docuseries. For this reason, I usually ask people I work with questions about what motivates them. I often think about this through a values driven lens, but I am also prone to having impossible standards, so I am learning how to let go, give people a chance, and trust them. I know this is also critical for my future and ongoing success because I know I can’t realize my goals alone so I have to both trust the people and learn how to move at the speed of trust.

I am challenged by Scharmer’s concept of “Learn from the future as it emerges” for a similar reason as my challenge to trust others. I sometimes get too focused on something that the blinders prevent me from seeing the bigger picture. I want the present to be perfect and in the process I actually lose the possibility of seeing what has come before and how it's showing me what is coming. I am actively working on giving myself space to step back so I don’t become a victim of achieving a singular project but losing sight of the larger goals and long term objectives. One way I am working on this is by seeking out accountability partners to help keep me in check when I get too focused on one thing.

Searching: From brown, “There is always enough time for the right work. There is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have. Find it.” And from Scharmer, “Listen to your blind spot.”

These concepts from both brown and Scharmer are somewhat fluid and abstract to me at the moment. I’ve seen examples in my own life where colleagues have been able to see when the conversation emerges that only those people can have in that moment and who have successfully let go enough to listen to their blind spots and they attract myriad followers. Related to the last paragraph of grappling with different areas of letting go, I am searching for the moments where the conversation is happening and I simply let go and listen to what blind spots are being revealed in the process.

The best example of an adaptive strategy experience I can think of was when I became an opera singer’s general manager during the first month of the pandemic in March, 2020. He had lost $100,000 in performance fees due to cancellations and was looking for ways to continue creating and making money. At the time, most arts organizations were slow on the uptick of creating and sharing digital content with their audiences who were stuck at home, and this singer realized that he could leverage the emptiness and goodwill of his hometown community to create music videos that we would license to different arts organizations. In many ways, we did utilize the questions described by McCandless and Shartau because we identified and answered the 6 questions they posed in their Strategy Knotworking approach within Liberating Strategy. Our purpose and context was clear, the challenge was to create digital content from a baseline of nothingness. The singer’s ambition drove his action to create the videos coupled with my goal to leverage my network in the arts to share the videos with as many arts organizations as possible. The key technology that supported this effort was iMovie. The singer had previously experimented with making his own music videos and had developed some of the editing skills needed to put together a high quality product. My biggest learning from the experience was to trust the singer and give them the space to try things out. Though if I am honest, he identified the future that would emerge far before the majority of other arts organizations. I was intentional in my effort to encourage and support the singer in whatever way I could, knowing it was the only thing both of us could do to try and deal with the daunting reality surrounding us. I was unsure if arts organizations would actually be interested in licensing his music videos, but he trusted his instinct to continually be making things with whatever tools were available and by the end of 2020, we had recouped the $100,000 he had initially lost.

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