Emergent Strategy Illustration

Emergent resolutions for 2021

by Jillian Witt

I know I’m not the only one re-thinking New Year’s resolutions this year. Like many folks in December, I usually take some time and think about what I want to accomplish in the next year. I’m not a strict goal-setter, but these informal New Years’ resolutions give me a bit of direction and focus for the coming year.

Typically, I use the SMART goal approach I learned in school: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-based. My goals range from reading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action (one of my 2016 goals), starting a community garden in my local park (a 2017 goal) to mastering a headstand in yoga (a 2020 goal).

In 2020, I didn’t master the headstand. For me, mastering a headstand requires professional supervision and support. When the pandemic hit, my yoga class moved online, which was not a safe way for me to master this skill. Not only that, but by March, Montreal was in lockdown and my partner and I were juggling two young kids at home while trying to keep up with work, caring for our neighbours and out-of-province families. My head was spinning, but it wasn’t upside down.

Across the world, so many 2020 goals were no longer relevant. Those SMART goals don’t take a changing context into account. You either succeed or fail.

I realized my goals ignored the emergent strategy approach we use at Openly with community partners. We use emergent strategy to create clarity and focus within organizations so they can make the most impact in a changing system. It still includes metrics, but that’s just one component of measuring success. The focus is on purpose and intention— using signs and signals to learn and adapt along the way. What if I applied emergent strategy principles to my goals in 2021?


What is emergent strategy?

Emergent strategy is about clarifying your purpose and direction so that you can respond to an ever-changing environment. Author of Emergent Strategy, adrienne marie brown explains, “[e]mergence emphasizes critical connections over critical mass, building authentic relationships, listening with all the senses of the body and the mind.” Constant change isn’t unique to 2020, but it was obvious for most this year. Lockdowns, for example, are one change that has ramifications for the entire system, including social, health and economic implications. The same implications influence our own personal situation and needs. Relationships, trust and listening are critical to good strategy in a changing context.

Just like organizations planning for the years ahead, our personal goals and intentions can be articulated to adapt to our changing environment. For Openly’s community partners delivering frontline services, the relationships and trust they established with local partners allowed them to create collaborative responses that were practical, supportive and made the most impact. This was true for policy-level efforts too—relationships and trust allowed community partners to quickly mobilize for racial justice, equitable COVID-19 responses, and more. These efforts may not have been in their strategic plans, but they were critical to fulfilling their purpose in the world.

Lisa Watson, Co-Founder of Openly explains, “Managing uncertainty with linear thinking can leave you feeling frustrated and confused. Throw open the possibilities for how you can achieve your goals by being clear on why they matter to you. You may find yourself contributing to meaningful change in unexpected ways. Purpose is a north star offering orientation and direction to help you stay on course as new challenges and opportunities emerge.”

Just like community partners, I want to use my goal-setting time to reflect not on what I want to achieve next year, but why? The purpose of the headstand goal was really about taking care of my health, getting stronger and trying new things. Instead of mastering the headstand, I found a new yoga community online this year with neighbours I had never met. I am getting stronger and building community during a time of isolation. My goal was set up to suggest that I failed and missed what I had achieved.


How do we measure our success when the future is unknown?

SMART goals are straight-forward. It’s easy to tell if you have achieved them or not, but do they make us more accountable? If we stick to rigid goals rather than their purpose, we can miss the entire intention behind our goals. But how do you take responsibility if you don’t have a clear target in mind?

When Tanya Darisi, Co-Founder of Openly works with community partners deep in the midst of managing complexity, accountability becomes about authenticity and curiosity. “Accountability in a rigid, overly structured way can feel heavy handed, especially when folks are trying to be accountable for things outside their control,” Tanya notes. “When working through emergence, you do need to ask good, critical questions, check in with those who are with you on the journey, and listen deeply to what they are saying. Then it becomes about adjusting to keep that purpose at the core so you don’t drift too far off course. Be accountable for what matters, and learn to let go of what doesn’t.”

This year, I’m going to start adapting the questions we ask community partners about organizations into personal reflections: Why do the things I want to achieve matter to me? Why are they important to me and to others? What’s the best action I can take given all that I have available to me right now? I don’t know what 2021 has in store, but I’m glad to have some direction and purpose as I navigate it.

Wishing you all a bright and compassionate 2021.



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