Peter Beaudoin Hosts Liz Nilsen
Listen to episode 145 here: https://www.podbean.com/ew/pb-nrdad-113979b
[00:00:00] Peter Beaudoin: So thanks Al. Hi, my name is Peter Beaudoin and I'll be your host of today's rainforest podcast. Today's guest is Liz Nilsen. She's the associate director of the agile strategy lab at the university of north Alabama. Liz and her team have just completed a project across the Alberta innovation ecosystem, which we'll talk about and explore today.
So firstly, welcome Liz.
[00:00:20] Liz Nilsen: Thanks. Great to be here. Thanks for having me.
[00:00:22] Peter Beaudoin: So can you tell us a little bit about the university's Agile Strategy Lab and the Strategic Doing Program that you guys do?
[00:00:29] Liz Nilsen: Sure, why don't I start with, do it the other way around and start with Strategic Doing then talk a little bit about the lab. So Strategic Doing has been around a lot longer than the lab, so developed about 25 years ago, and I know we'll talk more about what it is, but then about 15 years ago, maybe, our director Ed Morrison decided that what he really wanted to do to scale that up was to learn, to teach it and teach it more broadly than he'd been able to do solo. And so then he went to work at a university, a different university, with the intention of learning, how to teach it, thought that would take a couple of years. It actually has taken a lot more than and so we established an agile strategy lab a couple of years ago, five years ago, maybe. And then in January of 2020, we moved the lab to the university of north Alabama, which is in the very Northwest corner of the state on the Tennessee river.
[00:01:16] Peter Beaudoin: Okay, that's great. So let's, let's explore what is Strategic Doing now, because I guess that's a component. So can you tell us a little bit about what is the program? What is Strategic Doing.
[00:01:25] Liz Nilsen: So Strategic Doing is a group process or discipline, or you could use just about any of those nouns. it's a process for groups, particularly groups that are in what we call a loosely connected open networks to work together effectively.
And what I mean by that is there, isn't a person kind of on top who can say, this is what you need to do. And there's, so there's a sense of voluntary-ness that people come in and out of the network as, as circumstances warrant. and usually they aren't all in one organization or at least they're in different units of an organization.
And when you're in that kind of situations, the kind of standard approaches to strategy don't work, all that well, you know, strategic planning was really designed for our hierarchy. kind of situation, but when you're working in a loosely connected network, that approach isn't really appropriate. So strategic doing a specifically designed for that kind of situation, to give groups a way to interact and conduct their conversations that helps them form effective collaborations, quickly focus on some strategic outcomes. And then, this is key, start into action immediately. With a understanding that as the group starts to learn more about whatever the challenge is they're focused on, that they'll be able to pivot and adjust accordingly.
[00:02:45] Peter Beaudoin: So you guys have been doing this for quite a while, right? I mean the Strategic Doing program, as you said, you've been growing it teaching it.
So can you give us an example of where a Strategic Doing program was used and how it fundamentally transformed a city or region?
[00:02:59] Liz Nilsen: We've worked in lots of different regions? So let me tell you about two of them. so the first is in our home backyard. So the university is in, what's called the Shoals area of Alabama, which is best known for music, actually Aretha Franklin and Rolling Stones and all those other people recorded there.
and also agriculture it's in a pretty rural part of this. and it's a university that traditionally was a teacher's college. That's how it was founded. but now has a much more comprehensive program. And what they really wanted to tackle was they had, they were graduating lots of great students.
[00:03:28] Liz Nilsen: And the students said, we love this community where we've gone to school and there are no jobs here, we can't stay. And so what the university was really focused on was how do we transform the economy of this region so that the students that were graduating, the best talent that we've really got in this region because most students come from pretty close, that the best talent we have here can stay here and flourish and help our economy flourish.
so they started their work about seven years ago, it continues to grow. But I'd say at this point, you know, Florence, Alabama, which is kind of the seat of the, is the town for the university. It's really a different place than it was seven years ago. It really does have the feel of it kind of an up and coming town with lots of really interesting things going on.
[00:04:07] Liz Nilsen: And an increasing number of students are choosing to stay put and start new businesses and, or have remote businesses where they can stay because the quality of life is great. You know, it's taken them a while, but they've really gotten traction and are continuing to move. And it's really changed the character of that community. So that's one, and that's as kind of a small rural town, which is one kind of community, right? So the other one is Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which obviously is a much bigger place. And Milwaukee is traditionally known as the beer city. That's kind of how they sort of, made their, made their mark in terms of what people think of it.
But that's not so much. They still brew some beer, but that's not the core of their economy anymore. and, what they did was they, they brought a group together using Strategic Doing and said, you know, what could we do with the assets that we have at our disposal? Because that's the question that we always start with in Strategic Doing and the assets that they had were assets that really did come out of their beer heritage because they were water assets. They were all assets around water technology, and obviously water is the key thing. You need to make a beer. Right. and so they actually established what originally was called the Milwaukee water council, an incubator for water based businesses. they set up some coworking spaces for people who were working in that area. there was a cold water company in a warm water company that got together and said, you know, we're willing to give lab space to whoever wants that. no matter what they're working on. and they now have a global water council. So no matter where you are in the world, you probably in some way have interacted with the water council there. So that's, that's kind of a big city example.
[00:05:43] Peter Beaudoin: Yeah. And, and I want to explore that a bit because when I look at the Strategic Doing, and I had gone through the program, so I have a little bit of an understanding, but if I look at Strategic Doing, it's a methodology to transform sort of how the ecosystem players collaborate.
Right. But the program itself is really designed to take people through a process where. They collaborate on projects. And so can you just describe a little bit more about that, that actual process of Strategic Doing?
[00:06:08] Liz Nilsen: Sure, so let me go back to the Milwaukee example. So, that group, the very first time they got together, you know, it was very open, you know, they didn't know what was going to come out of that conversation.
They just knew they wanted to sort of explore this space of, you know, we have a lot of things going on in water. What could. and in that process, you asked four questions in Strategic Doing. So the first question is what could we do? So what could we do with the assets we already have at our disposal?
We try to get rid of those questions that say, oh, if only we had a million dollars, oh, if only we had, you know, a bunch more people, what can we do with what we already have? That's the first question. The second question is what should we do? There's always more things to do than we can. So what's the strategic place to start?
the third question is what will we do, which is where the rubber kind of hits the road. You know, what commitments are we going to make to each other about taking action to move forward on that should. And then the last question is what's our 30 30, which is our shorthand for when are we going to get back together? Talk about what happened when we did those commitments that we made to each other. Usually in the last 30 days, Decide whether or not we need to change our, our path at all. And they make plans for the next 30 days. So those are the four questions. So in Milwaukee, they started with this idea of, well, you know, what could we do?
[00:07:22] Liz Nilsen: What do we have? And so, you know, they, all these, they invited lots of people. So all these different water assets started to kind of, you know, it's like, here's all the things that not right. And then it was, well, what, what, what could we do with those and rearrange them in interesting ways and this person with the hot water lab person with the cold water lab happened to be sitting next to each other. And they said, well, we could, is there something we could do with these two things and what they decided the opportunity was was, well, we could, we have extra, you know, at least time capacity in those labs, we could make that available to people who aren't our employees.
So that was the idea they started with that became their kind of, you know, they did a pilot project or like, let's try it out. Let's see what's going to work, was successful. And over time they kept meeting the group, kept meeting together every 30 days. And at some point I'm not sure how long down the road they said that was very successful.
How about a whole building that does that kind of thing? And it became a very large thing. Now, if you go to Milwaukee and you go to the water council, it's this lovely, large building with lots of space, for, you know, labs and coworking and all kinds of other things. But they started with this very small, these two guys sitting next to each other saying, well, we could just let people come into our labs. That's all we could do. And that's turned into something much bigger.
[00:08:39] Peter Beaudoin: So it's really, yeah. About taking a number of, you know, getting together, starting on a concept, building that and growing over time. So this is, you know, and that's a, maybe that's a great point to say, let's talk a little bit about what you're doing in Alberta, because I know you're just sort of finishing the first phase of a project. So maybe you could tell us a little bit about what you've done here.
[00:08:56] Liz Nilsen: We've been working with Platform Calgary and they contacted us, let's see a little bit more than a year ago, I guess, and said they were interested in Strategic Doing, and they were particularly interested in, training a set of people who were involved with Platform Calgary, their partners, and staff, and whoever else were kind of their stakeholders to learn something about Strategic Doing and learn how they might use the skills of agile leadership to push their collaborations farther.
As they looked forward to opening their new building, offering new services and that kind of thing. so we had a set of, I think 45 people who went through an online training. So we used to do our training in person, of course. And then since the pandemic happened, we now do a lot of things online.
so we did that. we then followed that up with a. What we call a workshop, which is a session in which we actually do Strategic Doing, and that included some people who had been through the training and then some people who had not been through the training, but, the people who had been trained were able to kind of guide the others through that process.
and they were able to, identify some opportunities for, you know, putting their assets together and, and moving out on those. So that's, that's one thing we did somewhere in the middle of all that, Alberta Innovates decided that they also would like to have some people trained. And so a group of about 32 people maybe, went through the Strategic Doing course, which is a little bit more involved than the course of the Platform Calgary people had done.
[00:10:18] Liz Nilsen: So they got trained. So now there's this pretty large group of about 75 people who have been trained in. thinking about how do we use those skills to push the innovation ecosystem forward.
[00:10:27] Peter Beaudoin: Okay. So let's, so that's, you've got a group that you already trained and did a cohort and actually ran a program and you've got another group that's almost ready to take on, the first set of projects, I guess, or to go through the process.
So can I just ask, like, when you look at this, I mean, it is a, it's a process that'll take a few years, like you said, in, in Shoals and in Milwaukee, it's not something that happens overnight. I mean, You know, so, so what were sort of the results to date? And I guess like, what's the next step? Where do you see this going for, for Alberta?
[00:10:56] Liz Nilsen: So, yeah, it's not instant and, you know, like a lot of processes, you know, the saying of, you know, it works. If you work, it kinda kind of makes sense. you know, so it really does take people deciding that they're going to, embrace it and embrace particularly that every 30 days we're going to get back together and we're just going to keep moving.
Even if we hit bumps, potholes. Oh, that thing that we thought was going to work. Oh, maybe not. Okay. Let's figure out what's next. It really does take that kind of discipline. So we certainly expect that. You know, will happen with the, with the groups that we did a workshop with. and we've already seen that, you know, we had, I think, eight groups at that initial workshop and, you know, some of those, projects for whatever reason, you know, the groups have decided no, that project doesn't really make sense anymore.
but there are others that have gotten some traction and are continuing to move. the group that we trained from Alberta Innovates, they actually did identify at the very end of that course, some groups that they wanted to introduce Strategic Doing to using a workshop. So they, at this point, are probably starting to do that.
[00:11:56] Liz Nilsen: You know, they're training, I think started in, I want to say the spring. So, you know, Canadian summer does put a little bit of a hiatus, some things, right. People are busy doing other things. but now as they head into fall, I think they're starting to implement those workshops. And, I'm, I'm curious to hear what's happened is they started to do that.
[00:12:11] Peter Beaudoin: So cause, and, and I, like I'd mentioned, I'd taken the Strategic Doing course and also acted as a facilitator. So sort of led one of these teams and for one of the groups who worked on one of these projects and what we did is we had created a road map of how entrepreneurs in Calgary could find and onboard tech talent.
We found, oh, there's a gap. You know? And we, we looked at that. So for us, we found that it was a good project, but when I think back on it, I recognize it's, it's only one project. So in a way it's a drop in a bucket. Right. So how, how do you know when this trickle of projects. Right starts to transform the ecosystem. Like what's the markers we should be looking for to go, wow, like we're, we're getting there. There's momentum. How do you measure that?
[00:12:51] Liz Nilsen: Well, what the, the main product that comes out of a Strategic Doing workshop, you know, that very first time that groups together, the main product really isn't the project.
The main product is trust because trust is what fuels ongoing innovation in a group because that first project usually is pretty small. Like yours was, you know, it, wasn't very large. Wasn't very complex. Didn't take you very long. But what it did was give you an opportunity to work together, to figure out whether or not you trusted each other.
You figured out who it was that was going to live up to the commitments they made and who wasn't. And that's the kind of thing that then lets the group say, okay, we did this, we were successful. What can we do next? And who else have we met as we've done this other thing that we might want to bring in and work with us.
So in some ways the most important thing that happens, our director likes to say, I don't care what you do, but do something because what you do, isn't as important as that experience of working together and building some trust, that's something that. It takes awhile to build. And it is a little bit one of those things where it's hard to measure, but most groups know when they've got it.
[00:13:59] Peter Beaudoin: It's an interesting point because one of the things we did on our team is we were, you know what, I think we were seven people, one or two of the people I did know, you know, I I'd worked with them in the past, but it was all these new people. So I found, I found this was a great outcome where I built a network.
I even, you know, phoned up each of the team members. Let's just do a 30 minute call to introduce ourselves. So now I've got a new contact point in the network to do things, right. It's just, you know, for, for me, that was one of the benefits. but so I want to ask, cause sort of continuing on that with the building of trust, because I did find the program intuitive, cause in a way you get a virtual team together to collaborate on a small project that it builds, it builds that community. It does build trust. But one thing is that you have to have participants in a way. Well, if possible subordinate in a way, their organizational goals from the ecosystem objectives. Cause you're trying to say it's not about my day job in a way I'm trying to contribute to the ecosystem.
And sometimes that's a challenge, right? Because you're asking people to contribute time and effort and energy. So, so how do you sort of overcome that? Right. Cause it's sort of, this does take time and that's a challenge in this process.
[00:15:08] Liz Nilsen: It is a challenge. You know, we work with lots of different kinds of organizations in Strategic Doing and the degree to which that's an issue just depends on the context, you know, but certainly in this project yes.
You know, that the request to people was, although maybe not so explicit was, you know, please come together. And be at the table to help grow the ecosystem more than to help grow your organization. And that is, you know, some people, are very interested in doing that and very invested in doing that and other people not so much.
And I mean, that's something you can't really. Change for people. There are people who might say at the beginning, you know what? I just got too much going on to really want to do that. some of them will come back because at some point they'll say, Hey, the benefits my organization can get out of being part of a thriving ecosystem, outweigh this contribution of time that they're asking me to make for other people, it's always going to be one of those. I love this Canadian phrase is we don't have this in the United States. It's always going to be a project off the side of the desk. You know, it's never gonna kind of make its way back onto the desk, but you don't really know until you get into the middle of it and you ask people to make commitments.
[00:16:14] Peter Beaudoin: Yeah. And it is interesting because I did find that it is a challenge because you're doing it remotely. Right. So for the people I did know in the team, it was easy to sort of build that. Hey, I haven't seen you in awhile. Let's build the trust. But for people you don't know. You know, if a face-to-face event would actually give you that more building of trust and building community etcetera.
So I appreciate that. So I guess from experience in other jurisdictions, how many cycles usually of Strategic Doing, does it take for learnings to stick? Because like I was a facilitator in one table. You know, and it's like, okay, I'm sorta getting a hang of this process. And you know, maybe we do a few more, but how do you get it where it becomes momentum in the ecosystem?
[00:16:54] Liz Nilsen: That's a really interesting question. I don't know that I have an exact answer for it. So, you know, the initial project that I learned Strategic Doing on had to do with, teams from universities in the United States that were working on changing engineering education. And I worked with 50 teams. And they learned the process.
They picked a first project. I did some coaching with them along the way to kind of get them through that first project and maybe a second project maybe. And then they were kind of on their own. And, then we looked back at the end and kind of looked at, you know, who, you know, which teams had been, effective, which teams hadn't been.
And, you know, why, what kinds of, what kinds of factors maybe played into that? We looked at lots of different kinds of things. I think the, you know, keeping at that, we're going to have a meeting every 30 days, no matter what. That really is what it takes. And, you know, sometimes those meetings are, oh my God, You know, this thing that we thought we're going to do was a disaster.
And, you know, I, I have some of those stories where a group picked a project and they went, oh my goodness, that doesn't work at all. you know, It's too big. Or our dean says that stop, you know, you're not doing that or whatever. And a team has to be able to say, okay, so what do we do next? And that's really the difference between teams where it sticks and teams where it doesn't, it's just that ability to say every 30 days, you know, the group in the Shoals, they've been meeting every 30 days for seven years.
The people at the table have changed,
[00:18:18] Peter Beaudoin: but the process goes lives on in a way. Yeah. Yeah. And so, well, and again, it's interesting because I'm always, when I look at it, I I've come in at the very earliest stages cause it's really a trickle of projects and, and it's almost like, okay, it's going to grow.
And so, so when you, I guess, is I'm just thinking of the evolution for this. Like you say, some groups they meet every month. They've been doing it for seven years, but we've got when we did it in Calgary, we had approximately. I think seven or eight groups, as you said. Right? So we're all, you know, you're talking seven or eight projects.
You do that a few times. So I guess what happens next in that context is the idea to do more of these small projects or at one point you moved to bigger, but that's in a way that's. The original intent of Strategic Doing is a bite sized project. If you start saying, well, we're going to, like you had mentioned combining two labs, that's not a bite-sized project anymore.
That's a major infrastructure rebuild or repositioning. So how does that, how do you transition from small projects do major pieces?
[00:19:21] Liz Nilsen: Part of It has the scenes of it are in how you pick that first project. So, you know, there's several criteria. We ask groups to take a look at when they're picking that first project. And you know, one of them is you can do it without getting permission.
it has to be big enough to involve everybody because that's part of that building trust is everybody has to have something to do. It has to be big enough. One of the other criteria is it needs to be something that's interesting enough that when other people hear about it, they will be interested to hear and hopefully get involved.
[00:19:50] Liz Nilsen: Because you do want to be able to pull more people in because that gives you more capacity to do bigger projects. So the extent to which you can pick something that has those characteristics. Then allows you to slowly like, oh, okay. Maybe now we split into two groups and we could do two things at the same time, you know, eventually.
And you know, this is the hope for the Platform Calgary group or whatever is that they have, you know, a process going where they have a core team kind of at the middle of the core team is keeping its eye on maybe several different kinds of initiatives. And there might be several projects within each of those, as those projects, you know, get some traction and attract other people.
[00:20:29] Peter Beaudoin: Cause I do see it as a way as you build trust. And then once that trust grows, then there's that trust to try something bigger because the first time you're like, oh, well how big do we want to do this? We don't know all these people around the table, but I can see that as you, as you learn from people, then you're, you're willing to try something bigger. Right. You're willing to try something.
[00:20:46] Liz Nilsen: Ya, and I think the other thing is that there is nothing, as you think about kind of attracting other people and recruiting them to be part of it. You know, there's a part of that that feels kind of scary because it feels like, oh, I'm asking people to make a contribution. You know, it's a little bit like asking for money, right? But the reality is that people really want to join a group that's actually getting something done. Because we have all spent so much time in meetings with groups that could never get off the dime. You can sort of demonstrate like, no, this is really going to be different really. And truly it's going to be different.
People are pretty ready to sign up for that, actually.
[00:21:21] Peter Beaudoin: Yeah. And it is, people are looking for solutions to some of this where, and, you know, the, the Canadian expression of side of your desk is if you're going to have a project on the side of your desk, how can you do it the most effectively? And I found Strategic Doing gives you that opportunity of a mechanism to go spend a little bit of time.
And create outcomes right across the ecosystem. So, no, that's good. So I just wanted to ask, like, so the course itself, I mean, for the listeners who are interested to know, I mean, the course itself is, you know, is available for people who want to sign up for the course. Correct? I mean, there, you can take it. It's virtual, it's available.
[00:21:56] Liz Nilsen: It's available both virtually and in person these days, now that we're starting to come out of the pandemic, we have, we have both options available.
Okay. So that's, so for those, I guess, and for those listeners who want to know more about the Agile Strategy Lab, or Strategic Doing, what should they do?
Yeah. So they can come to our website, which is AgileStrategyLab.org. And that'll tell them about all the different things we do, which includes Strategic Doing. go beyond that as well. And that's the best way to do that. They can also contact us and say, Hey, I, you know, heard the podcast. I'd like to learn more and we'd be happy to reach out and have a conversation.
[00:22:29] Peter Beaudoin: Great. Okay. Well, look, Liz, I do want to say thanks for your time. I think this was a great discussion today. So again, thanks again.
[00:22:36] Liz Nilsen: Thanks for having me really appreciate it.
[00:22:38] Peter Beaudoin: So for those listeners, if you did like this episode, please subscribe to the podcast and thanks for listening.