What we think

Participatory Approaches to Strategy Development

22nd May 2023 Posted by: Ethicore

Image by Catalyst2030

During Catalysing Change week 2023, we co-facilitated an interactive webinar on co-creating strategy with our partners at Tostan and Lwala. Rachael shared thoughts on the imperative and potential of participatory approaches to strategy development in turbulent times. Here is a summary…

1.    First let’s just look at trends for strategy development.   

  • Strategy always operates with uncertainty.  But in an increasingly disrupted world (pandemics, conflict, climate shocks) we need to shift from traditional models with a structured plan for the longer-term to more agile approaches to strategy.  That means you need to…
    • Keep focused on external – embrace forces of disruption. Identify the big trends (and likely predictable surprises) to anticipate and respond to. 
    • Choose your big bets (and your no regrets (things that you would do no matter what)). 
    • In an agile strategy you set ambition and goal, general direction and parameters for impact to guide decision making, but allow space to respond to opportunities/challenges. 
    • Keep focused on impact. Keep that question central. 
    • Key for today is that a participatory approach is essential for an agile strategy to live within an organisation and for stakeholders to operate without too much long-term detail/guidance. 

2.    Participatory approaches, at their best, can be a process of empowerment for communities and part of the impact process.   

  • Nominal (passive) and instrumental (limited and targeted) approaches are giving way to more representative (active, voice) and transformative (means and an end) approaches to community engagement in strategy development.   
  • Those organisations that have structurally integrated community in their own governance and decision-making are well set up for more transformative engagement of communities in their strategies.   
  • Structural tools for active and ongoing engagement with communities, will enable your strategy process to build from your work together. See examples from Lwala and Tostan.

3.    There are many approaches and innovations to enable participation in strategy development (and its ongoing evaluation and adaptation during these turbulent times).   

  • Participative structures include user groups, community stakeholder groups, consultation with  trusted gate-keepers (e.g., community/religious leaders), community advisory boards (to inform and advise on strategy and planning over an extended period of time) and deliberative structures (e.g., citizen assemblies or juries) to engage communities in decision making around complex issues (used for government policy and strategy development). 
  • Co-creation approaches, using innovation methodologies and embracing diversity of inputs are particularly helpful in early stages of strategy exploration.    
  • Technology can help support insight and engagement
    • Remote survey tools, SMS surveys and WhatsApp polling, including 60 decibels, Mobenzi Mobile app, and Engage Spark.   
    • Digital engagement platforms have been used by government and service providers to engage communities around service development strategies, but are more suited to urban settings, e.g., Citizen Lab, used by Peñalolén, a Chilean Santiago commune, to develop a participatory budget for the local plan. 
  • Participation doesn’t end when a strategy is written. Participative approaches to evaluation enable ongoing learning for communities, stakeholders and partners, e.g.:
    • The most significant change methodology, which engages community members and stakeholders to tell their personal stories of change, share and analyse how change is happening. 
    • Journalling over the course of the strategy period which are then analysed for patterns of change. 

Overall – the strategy process is an extention of the organisation’s model for working with community.  Making strides to structurally engage communities will ensure your strategy development and implementation is adaptive, and responsive in these turbulent times. 

By Rachael Clay

The session, in partnership with Catalyst2030, TostanLwala and Harvard Kennedy School Center for Public Leadership shared experiences, approaches and learning.  You can watch the full webinar here: Co-Creative Strategy: Supporting Communities through Collaborative Strategy – Catalyst 2030

Strategy in uncertainty: Staying agile

20th March 2023 Posted by: Ethicore

Original photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Post 4 of the ‘Strategy in uncertainty’ series

You have your strategy, people are engaged, but it’s still too easy to slip into old patterns and carry on as before.  From our experience there are strategic approaches, ways of working and mindsets which can all help sustain commitment to an agile and transformational strategy. 

  1. Invest in the future now.  Consider McKinsey’s 3 horizon framework.1  Consciously invest in the second (3-5 yrs) and third (5+ yrs) horizons to prepare for the future.   Monitor your spending and don’t expect immediate results.  Remember you are setting up for the longer term. 
  1. Structure around goals not functions.  Multi-functional teams create cut-through on the things that matter to change.  Bring people together across functions to focus on the ‘Wildly Important’2 and free teams up for what really matters. 
  1. Impact, impact, impact.  We have said it before, but the relentless focus on impact is key.  Then focus on your role and added value in unlocking impact and excel at it.  Are you about providing funds, expertise or goods and services to programme participants?  That’s your route to impact. 
  1. Keep external.  Do rapid reviews of the external environment and talk to external stakeholders.  Know what’s fixed, changing rapidly, or is transformed.   
  1. Be responsive.  Focus on the needs, drivers and behaviours of your stakeholders.  Listen to them and be responsive.  Adapt to their changing needs. 
  1. Impact reviews.  Review progress against impact goals regularly.  Go beyond leadership to engage country and programme staff and partners. Understand and do more of what drives impact. 

The future may look uncertain, but for the bold it can offer big opportunities.  A focus on impact and transformational change has never been more important. A new approach to planning and strategy implementation is currently required.  Adopting new ways of working can help deliver on your strategic ambitions to change and sustain lives and environments in uncertain times. 

By Jane Thurlow 


1Enduring Ideas: The three horizons of growth | McKinsey

2 Discipline 1: Focus on the Wildly Important | FranklinCovey

Strategy in uncertainty: Participatory processes

17th March 2023 Posted by: Ethicore

The Ethicore Participatory Process
The Ethicore Participatory Process


Post 3 of the ‘Strategy in uncertainty’ series

Strategies on paper aren’t going to change the world.  Those that organisations live and breathe stand a chance.  Setting a dynamic direction, which engages and informs at all levels of the organisation, can help to navigate change.  Participatory processes in the development of a strategy are essential to build the necessary ownership and engagement in an agile strategy for its ultimate delivery.  

The three elements of the Ethicore Participatory Process:  listen, engage and ownership, are critical to strategic planning that lives within an organisation.  A mix of tools are used at each stage to ensure a strategy is built on deep insight, engages the organisation in possible directions and is owned and used by teams.  Our next blog will explore some of the tools in more detail. 

By Rachael Clay

Strategy in uncertainty: Agile planning 

15th March 2023 Posted by: Ethicore

Original photo by Peter John Maridable on Unsplash

Post 2 of the ‘Strategy in uncertainty’ series

An elaborate strategy can feel reassuring for Boards at times of uncertainty. However, it can also underplay risks, slow response times and miss opportunities during periods of change.  We have been evolving approaches to strategy development and planning with partners over the last few years, to build agility.  Our learning is that facing up to the disruptive forces, having an unrelenting focus on impact and a strong position are all essential to success.  Here are the five fundamentals we’ve found support effective strategy development in uncertain times: 

  1. Set your goals for impact.  With pressure on funding, it’s tempting to prioritise income, but targeting and incentivising impact (with income) will focus your organisation on outcomes and help avoid going into pure survival mode. 
  1. Embrace disruption. Face up to the forces of change. Identify the big trends (and likely predictable surprises) to anticipate and respond to, making sufficient investment in the areas that will help your organisation transform.  We use PESTLE, futures analysis and McKinsey 3 horizons model1 to analyse this. 
  1. Understand your position in the market – keeping an external focus.  Where do you add real value – build on that.  Make sure it’s distinct and material for your partners and funders. 
  1. Design for agility.  Help your team make high impact decisions and be agile.  Give them the parameters to make decisions and respond to opportunities, engage them in the process and encourage them to create impact and learn. 
  1. Act with conviction.   Tackle the big changes needed in the organisation.  Use the big bets, no regrets and resets model2 to take action.  Identify new investments, core areas to change and operational ‘quick wins’ for a future focused model. 

Once we accept the uncertainty of our times we can design strategies to navigate through.  Embracing these fundamentals for agility can be reassuring for Boards and liberating for Leadership and their teams.  It starts with the strategic planning process but should become an organisational approach over time. 

By Rachael Clay and Jane Thurlow 


1Enduring Ideas: The three horizons of growth | McKinsey

2 When nothing is normal: Managing in extreme uncertainty | McKinsey