Story, Strategy & Imagination

Idelisse Malavé is an organizational consultant and coach committed to supporting social justice leaders, groups and networks.  She has worked on a range of organizational effectiveness projects, including crafting strategic thinking processes, planning, change management, team-building, mediation, meeting design and facilitation, leadership transitions and governance.  She ran the Tides Foundation for many years, served as Vice President of the Ms. Foundation and was a civil rights litigator. She is also co-author of the book Mother Daughter Revolution.

The modern story of social change is unfolding within complex and unpredictable economic, political, social and cultural realities. Globalization, new media and technologies and the Great Recession are getting to be “old” news, yet the changes they bring still manage to evoke the “shock of the new.”

The power and roles of government and corporations, racial and ethnic demographics, financial systems, social and economic structures and relations, popular culture and much more are evolving rapidly and sometimes abruptly. Our ideas and strategies for achieving social change aren’t keeping pace.

More than a simple adjustment here and another there is required –radical dislocations call for re-imagining social change and how we go about making it.

Therein lies my interest in how we understand and craft strategy. It’s an interest that has been fueled in these last few years by my work with growing numbers of social justice groups and leaders –please note, “successful” groups and leaders– frustrated by our overall lack of meaningful progress, of real change.

To be clear, I am interested in creative, practice-driven strategic thinking and its relationship to implementation, and not in traditional strategic planning –which, to my mind, just doesn’t work. 

Crafting Strategy

More often than not when we speak of strategy, we refer to a deliberate and intended process.  First you think and then you act. Implementation follows formulation. But strategies, especially when you are dealing with complex social systems, also emerge and develop in response to unfolding realities.

I think of strategy as three major models. A planning model, which doesn’t work; a visionary model, which is kind of a view from the mountain; and a learning model, which is kind of climbing the mountain.  But you’ve got to climb the mountain before you get the view from the mountain. -  Henry Mintzberg

Practice-driven is how I think of the emergent, “climbing-the-mountain” crafting of strategy.  It’s in the doing that we scan the environment best to reveal cutting-edge ideas and practices and detect emerging patterns early enough to help them take shape.  It’s in the doing that we learn, grapple with uncertainties, get to know the players, collaborate, take risks and experiment. It’s in the doing that we are challenged with the necessity of narrowing our focus but never losing sight of the bigger context, of “seeing both the forest and the trees.”

Strategy is a story, a narrative for making sense of making change.  Like oral epics of old, it shifts and grows with the telling, imagined and re-imagined with experience and practice. 


Working to transform systems of entrenched and interlocking issues takes imagination, a lot of imagination.  And imagination and creativity are not just something you have or don’t: the “kiss of the muse” can be wooed.

Immersing yourself, your mind in thinking about what you are trying to accomplish comes with practice-driven strategizing. Action does not preclude analysis, yet analysis is not enough –necessary but not sufficient– when your mind is searching for the “distant and unprecedented” connections that are at the heart of innovation. 

Alongside action and analysis, we need to relax, to steal time away so that our minds can wander and engage in an unconscious process that resembles the action in a pinball machine: pull back the flipper and send that small silver ball bouncing from one place to another with lights flashing and points adding up for every creative connection.

We can also tap into a range of other approaches and tactics for enhancing creativity, from how we frame the question to looking at it from multiple perspectives to teamwork to embracing mistakes and failure as opportunities to learn –and many more worth exploring.

Living the Strategy

How then do you translate emergent strategies that shift with changing circumstances to deliberate plans?

  • Be clear about the destination, your purpose.
  • Stage implementation, reserving more detailed plans for the early stages.
  • Forecast and assess the probability of different future scenarios.
  • Build in flexibility with plan elements that can function effectively across different possible futures.
  • Identify, consult and coordinate with stakeholders, allies and partners –they represent important variables in most plans. 
  • Revisit and revise frequently.

Remember, there is no single right strategy.

These initial ideas are very general, I know. How to weave back and forth between crafting strategies and planning with grace and efficacy is an ongoing story best imagined together.  Web of Change is an opportunity to do just that next month.

Some Recommended Reading:

“The Eureka Hunt,” Jonah Lehrer, The New Yorker, July 28,2008 

“Crafting Strategy,” Henry Mintzberg,

Switch, Chip & Dan Heath