What urban spaces and your organization have in common: Effective systems at work

I knew I was in the right place when I first learned that Clarus uses a system-based approach to its strategic planning efforts. Similar to one I studied and employed as a urban planner, this approach is grounded in the engagement and understanding of all the various parts of an organization and the ways in which they function individually, with each other, and in relation to the whole.

A favorite illustration of a systems-based approach can be found in the groundbreaking urban planning work done by William H. Whyte. In the 1970s, Whyte founded The Street Life Project, a grant-funded initiative that was born from a desire to figure out why some urban places are successful and why others are not…and by extension, how to improve those less successful places.

Although systems thinking was only in its infancy at this time, Whyte’s approach to analysis, as documented in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, can be summed up as a systems-based approach. Whyte looked at each individual component of Seagram Plaza (such as Streets, Sitting Spaces, and Effective Capacity), how each component interacts with the others, and how they all work together to create an overall successful “Life of the Plaza.” This kind of systems-based analysis is just as important in strategic planning.

This year, Clarus had the opportunity to work with a local grant-making foundation in developing a strategic plan for their organization. Leadership of the organization recognized that both external factors – such as progress in local economic development projects and shifting dynamics in community leadership – as well as internal factors – such as the foundation’s growing desire to make lasting impact in the community– presented an opportunity for the organization to step back and identify goals and priorities for the future that would be informed and enhanced by careful consideration of these dynamics.

Working closely with the Client, Clarus designed a process grounded in our systems-based approach. On behalf of the Client, we began by engaging community leaders and public officials in the community ranging from government officials to key civic organizations. We then drilled down into the organization’s staff, leadership, and board of directors, and expanded to the organization’s community partners, grant recipients, and investors.

At each step of the process, the Clarus team considered how all of these individuals and parts of the organization related to one another and contributed to the organization’s overall operations and mission. The project is also a great example of client/consultant collaboration, in which we were able to deliver the most value through strong alignment with a very capable team. The project was a great success and Clarus is now working to add targeted capacity as the Client implements the plan.

In working with this and all of our clients, the Clarus systems-based approach allows us to aid organizations in building the capacity and buy-in that is critical to helping visionary leaders (see Cathy’s essay), while also building the foundation for effective communication to support implementation (see Kristie’s essay). The outcome of a systems-based approach is a well-informed, holistic plan that moves on its own into successful implementation and organizational success.

Employ a systems-based approach, one that examines all dimensions of an or ganization and brings the right people to the table for discussion, to ensure the longterm success of any planning initiative.

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