Kate Wolford: Living McKnight’s Strategic Framework

In two earlier posts, I referenced The McKnight Foundation’s Strategic Framework. A core premise of the Framework is that the social and environmental issues we address are complex and dynamic. The systems we influence are also complex, interlocking, and often sub-optimal or dysfunctional in relation to our goals. And although we deploy a robust toolkit of resources, it is modest compared to the goals we pursue. Our ability to exercise credible influence depends on the quality of our relationships with a diverse set of grantees and stakeholders.

Members of the CCRP East Africa Community of Practice examining cowpea crops.

Members of the CCRP East Africa Community of Practice examining cowpea crops.

Rather than a top-down directive, McKnight’s Strategic Framework grew out of innovative efforts already under way within the Foundation. Several years before we embraced adaptive leadership as an organization-wide approach, McKnight’s Collaborative Crop Research Program was already leading the way.

The CCRP is a multidiscipline, cross-sectoral, multinational applied research program, working on crop and food systems in economically and environmentally challenged areas of the world. In other words, complexity on steroids. In 2008, Jane Maland Cady became McKnight’s international program director, with a mandate to deepen and expand the CCRP. Given Jane’s background in developmental evaluation, she quickly enlisted two amazing thought-leaders/practitioners based in Minnesota to assist the CCRP in building out a strong adaptive framework: Glenda Eoyang, founding director of the Human Systems Dynamics Institute; and Michael Quinn Patton, pioneer of developmental evaluation. Glenda and an evaluation team worked with the CCRP leadership team to develop its theory of change, using adaptive leadership as its approach; Michael has been an advisor to the process since its inception.

Board members became more intrigued as they watched CCRP leadership meetings from start to finish. Each leadership meeting starts with what seems like barely contained chaos as participants bring forward research data, observations that transcend disciplines and cultures, and new factors in the external context. But by the meeting’s end, shared meaning and decisions emerge, and next steps are agreed upon. Through this process, the CCRP has more clearly articulated its theory of change and core approach, strengthened the quality of its research, and increased its knowledge-sharing and influence. Meanwhile, as CCRP staff gained positive momentum with Glenda and Michael’s work, other programs also began to seek their assistance.

Visual representation of the adaptive action model.

Visual representation of the adaptive action process, embedded in our strategic framework.

McKnight’s Strategic Framework was the product of a board-senior staff retreat facilitated by Glenda in 2012. It has provided a shared articulation of how we think about and do our work across diverse and differently structured programs. We’ve also developed an evaluation framework consistent with this approach, and we’ve integrated learning opportunities about adaptive leadership into organization-wide staff development.

Two years into living with the Strategic Framework, many board-staff discussions now begin with three deceptively simple questions we adopted during the Framework’s development:

1. “What?” (what’s the context, data, stakeholder input, trends, patterns),
2. “So what?” (interpretation, meaning-making), and
3. “Now what?” (implications and actions).

From a governance perspective, it is the disarming simplicity of the questions that creates a wonderfully open space for generative conversations among board and staff. Together, we’re all looking at and making sense together of data, trends, and patterns. The questions focus our discussions at the level of strategy, bridging the whole portfolio of grants and non-grant activities (convenings, research, policy, etc.) in a program area.

And at a staff level, adaptive leadership also encourages a spirit of inquiry, discovery, and experimentation, and deeper learning and collaboration across program areas.


Kate KateWolford_thumbWolford
President, McKnight Foundation