Thanks to Marshall Ganz for writing Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement (2009, Oxford University Press). He documents the emergence and success of the Farm Worker Movement in the 20th century. This history lesson is meaningful again as we engage in a national conversation about the voice and role of labor and immigrants in our economy. Beyond the story of the Farm Workers, Ganz distinguishes between strategy and strategic capacity. Strategy is a creative and evolving response to specific and changing circumstances while strategic capacity is the foundation that enables a group to develop appropriate strategy. Many groups copy strategy without attending to the context in which the strategy emerged or the specific skills and cultural competence needed to develop and implement the strategy.
There is nothing obvious about strategy. What worked in the last campaign may or may not work now. For organizations working to change the status quo, the odds of success are necessarily long. They must be attuned to possibilities that are not obvious. Ganz uses the parable of David and Goliath to illuminate this point. We are surrounded by Goliaths who are convinced of their invincibility because of their size, expertise, length of existence, and control of resources (GM comes to mind). David’s success starts with his commitment which led to his willingness to figure out how to accomplish his goal. From there he used what he knew—his slingshot—and applied his skill in a novel way. It’s not just his strategy but his ability to imagine and implement the strategy that’s of interest here.
For organizations, Ganz identifies the sources of strategic capacity as the biographical mix of the leadership team and the organizational structures and processes that direct the team’s energy. Biographical sources include the identities of team members—their “stories” as shaped by culture, race, ethnicity, vocation, gender, and more. Identities shape thinking and perspective. Leaders also bring distinct social networks, which are influenced by their identities, and they have particular tactical repertoires, that is, they know how to do certain things. The more diversity there is in these biographical sources of strategic capacity, the greater likelihood the team will have the ability to see challenges from multiple perspectives, come up with innovative solutions, and have the reach of skill and networks to implement their ideas.
Organizational sources of strategic capacity include regular and open deliberations, that is, group learning, and whether the organization relies on internal or external resources. Who pays the bills and contributes other energy to maintaining the organization affects where the strategic team looks for reinforcement. Put another way, “you dance with the one that brung ya.” Accountability structures are the ways groups choose leadership teams, define goals, and enforce results. Whether the leadership team is accountable to bureaucrats, each other, the constituents, and/or other parties, makes a difference in how they see and address issues.
The epilogue is a sobering reminder that staying David is its own challenge. Organizations can easily misread the story of their success and what it takes to sustain it.
Organizational leaders, strategic thinkers, and change agents will find provocative ideas and useful habits in Ganz’s work.