Blue Economy Convergence Conversation: Ed Morrison and Strategic Doing

Years of working wicked problems led Ed Morrison to develop a new discipline called Strategic Doing. Ed started his professional career working on Capitol Hill in the 1970s and early 1980s, focused on problems of globalization — which are really complex problems across dynamic networks. In the early 1990s, Ed left the government to work in corporate strategy consulting with the goal to understand globalization better. He gained the understanding that nobody was really addressing the challenges of communities and regions forced to transition their economies to meet the needs of a globalizing world. Applying traditional strategic planning models to the problems of these communities was neither efficient nor effective. 

Over the next decade, Ed applied his expertise to design a new approach to strategy titled Strategic Doing. The network-based model for strategy in open, loosely connected networks emphasizes the strategic value of focused collaboration and innovation in today’s global economy. In 2019, Ed co-authored Strategic Doing – Ten Skills for Agile Leadership, which summarizes more than 25 years of insight into how to develop and execute strategies in a hyperconnected world. He recently received a Ph.D. in economics for his work.

In this Blue Economy Convergence Conversation, Ed and I discuss the need for new mental models for problem-solving within dynamic organizations.


Deb: What is the difference between network-based models for strategy and traditional strategic planning?

Ed: The strategic planning model was developed in the operations research function in the 1950s and matured at Harvard Business School in the 1960s. It presumes there’s a hierarchical structure in place by which you can design and execute strategy making. The basic idea is you analyze a bunch of data, you come up with a strategy, and then you try to inspire your organization to execute the strategy. It works somewhat, but a lot of people have frustrations with it. In a networked environment where you have networks, there is no hierarchy. Nobody can tell anybody else what to do. So the question becomes, how do you do complex work in an open network when nobody can tell anybody what to do? This is why the concept of open-source software development has more relevance.

What we’ve learned is that when leadership shifts to creating strategic questions that trigger conversations, those conversations act like experiments that continuously try to figure out what’s going to work and what’s going to scale. It’s a recursive process, much like open source software is recursive. You don’t have a final strategy. You’re continuously updating strategy as frequently as you need to in highly volatile markets and risky markets. You want to set your time buckets tightly, so you can manage your risk. In more stable environments, you might stretch out your time horizons to look over the horizon.

Deb: How diverse can the network be? Could you do it in a very complex network such as Amazon’s network of suppliers across all the countries they operate in?

Ed: It can be very diverse. While I was at Purdue, we did testbeds with large defense companies and their supplier base and with NASA Life Sciences. We also worked in Flint, Michigan for eight years, assisting them with reducing teenage homicides. The key insight we gained through these disparate applications is that collaboration drives open innovation. Both collaborations and recombinant innovation emerge from conversations with a very predictable, but hidden structure. If you understand the structure, then you guide the conversation by following some simple rules.

If you can visualize a swarm of bees or a flock of birds, each one of the individual agents is following a simple set of rules. As that happens, a pattern, the strategy, emerges. This is really what network strategy is all about. It’s following simple rules and creating disciplines so that you’re managing risk carefully. It’s open-source. The job of leadership is to raise the strategic questions that will lead to innovation, learning, and adaptation. It’s a disciplined process for collective learning, which I think we’ve been missing in today’s organizations.

Deb: The Blue Economy seems like a hard problem that could apply the Strategic Doing methodology, do you agree and, if so, what is your different definition of the Blue Economy?

Ed: I started seeing the emergence of the Blue Economy about a decade ago. It’s the notion of how we use the ocean or our water resources in new and more productive, more resilient and sustainable ways. It’s not really important how I define it. It’s more important to how Wilmington defines it.

The World Bank takes an expansive view of the Blue Economy. I agree with it.

I have experience working in Alaska with clusters across communities, as they consider their Blue Economy. I’ve also worked with water clusters in Milwaukee on fresh water technology. Both areas follow expansive definitions. It’s not so important how an outsider views the Blue Economy. What is important is how Eastern North Carolina defines it and how the region’s discussions are conducted.

The definitions will change as a more integrated view emerges. The process starts with the assets they already have. By combining these assets in new and different ways, Wilmington can create new opportunities for itself. They can grow. So rather than trying to determine what the Blue Economy is upfront, don’t be too rigid. Focus on what the opportunities could be based on the assets of the region’s current assets. Focusing on opportunities – where the region wants to go – will change our perceptions of the regional economy and its possibilities. It’s up to the folks in Wilmington to define those opportunities.

Deb: How can Wilmington identify the stakeholders that they need to bring into Blue Economy discussions?

Ed: How the conversation is framed is important. We need to move away from what I’ll call “hierarchical vertical logic” to more network-based logic. The language we choose is important. I tend to shy away from the idea of stakeholders. When we think about a stakeholder, it’s a person who has a stake they want to protect.  It is defined normally by some kind of boundary, a boundary that we set up for ourselves that we try to defend.

I prefer the term, partners. The key to innovating in a network is having a tight core of people who can design and guide the network. It’s important to have porous boundaries so people and resources can flow across that boundary. It’s a much more organic construct. Network-based thinking moves you toward developing partnerships or collaborators, where you can link and leverage assets across these organizational boundaries. You can create new opportunities through that process of recombinant innovation or what scholars sometimes call “effectuation”. It’s the notion that our opportunities are going to emerge when we connect our assets together in new and different ways.

As soon as you start thinking about the stakeholders who need to be at the table, you create problems for yourself. Who is a stakeholder? Who decides? Where do you draw the line? I prefer to start out by asking who could be on the core team? Who really has an interest in designing and guiding a strategy in a different way? Who is trustworthy and committed to building partnerships?  

When we think about core teams and networks with porous boundaries, we start to understand the value of Strategic Doing. And then we can scale it. The Water Council in Milwaukee started in 2007, initially with a gathering, a Strategic Doing workshop. In 2008, civic leaders asked us to design and guide this workshop. We had about 60 people who broke into smaller groups to discuss opportunities and initiatives. That event started a new set of habits and collaborations that have allowed for a dynamic cluster to emerge and grow. It’s an organic process. Milwaukee is now a global hub for freshwater technology.

Deb: How might Wilmington include the poor or underrepresented communities into Blue Economy discussions?

Ed: The challenge is not isolated to Wilmington. The growing inequality that we’ve seen over the last two or three decades is a severe problem across the country. We worked in Flint for eight years. It is an impoverished community that had been left behind. The challenge is an ongoing process rather than an event. How do we construct a conversation to be more inclusive of the interests of people who have assets, skills, connections, and passion to build their community? It’s really important to recognize people in impoverished neighborhoods, but existing power structures in many communities don’t listen to these people. They don’t even open the doors for communication. They think about stakeholders, as opposed to having a broader conversation.  When you open the door, you tend to build trust.

Trust is critical to building relationships. It’s important to reach out and meet people where they are, not where you want them to be. Let me illustrate. Bob Brown, our partner in Flint from Michigan State University, started his first workshop by asking everybody to pull out their business card. The people in the neighborhoods don’t have a business card, but the representatives of the white power structure certainly did. Bob next pointed to a wastebasket, and he told everybody who had a business card to throw their business cards in the trash can. His actions lowered the perceived sense of hierarchy in the room. In the context of the workshop, Bob created a conversation among equals. From Bob’s perspective, everybody has a gift to share. Everybody has a role to play. This small action was an important and conscious step in Strategic Doing.

To develop an inclusive Blue Economy in Wilmington works the same way. Flatten the hierarchies. Find the space where people feel safe and build from there. Focus your conversations on the future of the Blue Economy, the future you want to build together. It will matter in Wilmington where these conversations take place. Move them around. Have these discussions in churches, libraries, parks, and other civic spaces. You will need to bring people together in places where they feel comfortable. In Ascension Parish, Louisiana, I found people felt safe in volunteer fire departments, so we held civic meetings there. If you have conversations only at the chamber of commerce or downtown, you will attract a certain group of people, but you will also be excluding a whole bunch of folks important to the discussion.

Deb: What is your greatest hope for the future?

Ed: My greatest hope is focused on my grandchildren and seeing that they have a path forward to a more prosperous, sustainable, and inclusive future. To build that future we will have to unleash our human ingenuity. There’s an interesting book called The Ingenuity Gap written in 2001 by the Canadian environmental scientist Thomas Homer-Dickson. His question is, “how do we overcome our ingenuity gap?” His notion is that as a human species, we’re facing more and more complex problems, but we weren’t coming up with ingenious solutions. What I hope for the future is that we learn more effectively how to collaborate. We need to focus more on the oldest technology we have, which is language and conversation. By mastering the skills for deeper, more creative conversations, we generate ingenious solutions to really complex problems. I think we can do it. This is my greatest hope for the future.


Ed reminds us that every year across thousands of success-minded businesses, teams of people become consumed with formal annual strategic planning activities. We gather information, seek consulting support, analyze market data and trends, and review financial data and performance across all business aspects. Teams huddle to peer into the future, attempting to discern where the world will be in a year, two years, or maybe even a few years. Companies try to “game out” their performance assumptions and growth projections using factors like investment scenarios and possible acquisitions. We debate possible competitors’ positioning or moves, looking for ways to checkmate them. Dozens of negotiations for resource allocation happen up, down, and across organizational tribes. Thousands of hours go into this urgent work to ensure we maintain direction and momentum in the marketplace. And when we are honest, we have to admit that our execution falls short of our plans more times than not. 

Strategic “doing” extends beyond the purview of corporate development, business development, and strategic planning offices, particularly as decision-making is fed by data and extended to the organization’s edges. Those at the edge are most likely to recognize when new information becomes important—they’re closest to the context of an issue or specific situation. For example, the people who know the most about when to run for their lives from a potential pyroclastic flow are not the Ph.D. volcanologists in charge of an experiment or particular analysis; they’re the people who set up the data collection equipment on the edge of the volcano. This is why, to make lasting change, leaders must meet people where they stand.

Deborah Westphal is a leader in future-focused strategy. In her book Convergence, she leverages more than 30 years of experience helping the world’s most innovative business and government leaders to challenge biases, ignite ideas, and build connections. She delivers this rich insight with an empathetic and thought-provoking writing style to chart a path for readers. Throughout the book, personal stories and historical examples highlight convergences that span the globe, impacting everything from global supply chains to climate change, and reshaping the future of business, technology, and humanity everywhere.

Get your copy of Convergence here.

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