Strategic Doing

Each issue of The Engaged Scholar Magazine features a brief "think piece" about the theory and practice of engaged scholarship. For this issue Ed Morrison, economic policy advisor at the Purdue Center for Regional Development, Purdue University, discusses a conceptual shift from "strategic planning" to "strategic doing."

Strategic Doing Diagram

The Great Lakes economy is transforming and, with it, our universities. The changes are profound. Outside, in cities stretching from Youngstown to Duluth, we see what happens with an industrial economy compressed under the massive weight of globalization. Leaders in these shrinking cities confront the cold realities of a crumbling civic infrastructure.

Yet, in the middle of each one of these cities sits a university campus. Around each of these campuses we see the sprouts of a new Great Lakes economy: the Hatch in East Lansing; the fresh water technology cluster anchored by the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee; Discovery Park in West Lafayette; the biomaterials cluster emerging around the University of Akron; and the list goes on.

We are moving into an era in which open networks generate wealth. Companies are learning that they must collaborate to compete. Many of the entrepreneurs guiding these young, more dynamic companies recognize that universities can be their most reliable, valuable collaborator.

Leaders in local and state government, as well as the nonprofit sector, are learning the same lesson: In the midst of dwindling budgets and a growing demand for services, collaboration provides the only reliable path forward. Our traditional approach to organization and programs is too stiff, too inflexible, and too costly. We need new approaches to providing education and social services that are more responsive, productive, and adaptive. We need more innovation.

It sounds simple enough. To leverage the vast resources of our universities in service to our regional economies, we should expand our collaborations. But the task is not so easy.

Each of these collaborations involves a new venture, a startup with a new team of people who have never worked together. We are moving across organizational and political boundaries, and, as we do, we can easily ignite fear of the consequences. We are undertaking complex initiatives, and both power and authority are split across these boundaries; no one can tell anyone else what to do. We are undertaking these collaborations in an era of shrinking budgets, all in the hope that we can find new ways to become more productive: to do more with less.

What's worse, our traditional approach to strategic thinking—the disciplines of strategic planning—are not well-suited to the complex, ambiguous world in which we must build these collaborations. Strategic planning disciplines are simply too costly, too inflexible and too slow to meet our needs.

Ed Morrison

At the Purdue Center for Regional Development we have spent a number of years grappling with this problem: How do we form sophisticated strategic collaborations quickly that are capable of meeting the complex challenges of rebuilding a regional economy? In the new discipline of strategic doing, we believe we have found an answer.

By drawing on the lessons of complex adaptive systems, open source software development, social network analysis, appreciative inquiry, and asset-based community development, we have distilled a new discipline for thinking and acting strategically in open, loosely joined networks. We have deployed strategic doing in a variety of different settings. The results are so encouraging that we are launching a new certification in the strategic doing discipline to share what we have learned.

Strategic doing leads to sophisticated innovations that link and leverage our university resources. The key: Develop a strategy with simple rules.

We look at our collaboration with Michigan State University as the anchor partnership in an emerging university network. We are committed to designing new approaches to university engagement by expanding the discipline of strategic doing. Working together, we are developing leaders with a new set of skills to guide sophisticated civic collaborations that achieve measurable results. We are also accelerating the transformation of the Great Lakes economy.


  • Ed Morrison
  • Purdue Center for Regional Development
  • Purdue University
  • (765) 494-7273

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