Strategic Capacity

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)

Occasionally in the course of human history, a small group with meager resources fighting a powerful foe, actually wins. One of the most famous of those struggles is that of the biblical shepherd David vanquishing the seemingly invincible Goliath. A thousand other struggles, against poverty, against oppression, against environmental degradation, retell the David and Goliath story with equally improbable outcomes. What's the secret to these unlikely successes? Resources (including financial, organizational, cultural or many others) alone, though useful, don't tell the whole story: the group with the biggest war chest sometimes fails where the seemingly more impoverished group succeeds. Neither does the idea of "political opportunity." And individual characteristics such as dedication, drive, emotional commitment – although also quite important – don't necessarily portend success or failure of activist struggles or social movements. There must be more to understanding why some efforts fail while others succeed beyond all expectations. Is "you win a few, you lose a few" the most useful conclusion we can draw?


Groups of people, whether formally organized or not, strive to make their positive impact on the world. Any group devoted to social change must sustain their organization – largely through marshalling and replenishing resources – over the course of its existence. To achieve its goals, the members of a group must work effectively together to make decisions. This pattern is intended to help groups increase the probability that they'll make good decisions at each stage of the group's development and in its engagement with the rest of the world. According to Marshall Ganz, the person who developed the concept of this pattern, it is most useful in " turbulent environments where rules, resources, and interests are emergent and links between ends and means are uncertain."


Discerning the macro tides of history is a risky business. Fortunately for those who undertake this avocation, those attempting the readings of the tea leaves writ large, have generally been quite dead years before the evidence emerges that demonstrates the unforeseen flaws in their reasoning. (Or, in rare cases, vindicates their astonishingly spot-on observations.) Perhaps riskier is the business of responding purposefully, punctually, piercingly and resoundingly to the micro tides of the here and now; the unexpected opportunities that arise from nowhere and vanish as rapidly. The best responses often demonstrate a shocking disregard for conventional wisdom. They will often demonstrate a preternatural anticipation of the next event and the next even after that and so on – while everyone else is seemingly caught unaware.

In the early 60's Marshall Ganz set aside his undergraduate studies at Harvard to work within the Civil Rights Movement in the US South. Twenty-eight years later, Ganz returned to Harvard, finished his Ba. and PhD., and developed the concept that this pattern is based on. "Strategic Capacity" specifically focuses on the question of why and how some people and organizations happen to adapt so wisely and, often, "guilefully", to new circumstances. (Indeed, some appear to thrive on them!) Strategic Capacity is too elusive to yield to mechanical analytical probes. For one thing, as Ganz points out, we can observe, "choices about targeting, timing, and tactics" (2004) but "the strategy that frames these choices – and provides them with their coherence – must often be inferred, using data drawn from interviews with participants, oral histories, correspondence, memoirs, charters, constitutions, organizational journals, activity reports, minutes of meetings, and participant observation."

While it is true that a specific strategy can probably be understood after the fact, the general strategic capacity of an organization's or movement's resistance to analysis is undoubtedly part of its power. Thus Ganz focuses more on the conditions that engender successful strategizing within an individual or group (i.e. its "strategic capacity") than on the strategies themselves. (Of course how a strategy is put into action is not trivial!) Ideally a group will use its strategic capacity to simultaneously build its strength while accomplishing its objectives.

Ganz explains that decisions are expressions of strategy and that strategy is a type of group creative thinking or distributed cognition that is sometimes akin to the "performance of a jazz ensemble." His theory of Strategic Capacity uses motivation, access to salient knowledge, and the heuristic processes that organizational leaders use as the key factors behind effective strategic capacity. Motivation is important because it describes how willing the group is to work towards its goals and what types of goals are established in the first place. Ganz further states that motivation based on "intrinsic rewards" and on the moral meaning of the enterprise is very important. Access to salient knowledge is important because, without this knowledge – particularly knowledge about "resources and opportunities," the group would be using inadequate and misleading information that the group asses and interprets to make its decisions in the heuristic processes, the third constituent of strategic capacity.

Ganz then steps back to consider the two driving forces, leadership and organization, that will be employing the strategic capacity that the model describes. According to Ganz, "Leaders devise strategy in interaction with their environments." He stresses that leadership teams are more likely to have effective strategic capacity when they include "insiders" and "outsiders", have strong and weak "ties" (connections) to a variety of sociocultural networks, and have "knowledge of diverse collective action repertoires." On the organization side, Ganz points out that, "Leaders interact with their environment from within organizational structures." Leadership teams that are regularly involved in open deliberations with actionable outcomes have more strategic capacity, and leadership teams that rely more on people than money are cultivating sustainable strategic capacity by encouraging leaders who can effectively strategize.


A group or organization that makes good decisions will be more effective than one that doesn't. Marshall Ganz's concept of "Strategic Capacity" identifies the underlying attributes behind a group's ability to make these decisions. By improving these attributes, a group can likely improve its ability to make good – and, sometimes, suprisingly good – decisions. Based on Ganz's reading (2004) of Bruner (1990), "Strategic thinking is reflexive and imaginative, based on ways leaders learn to reflect on the past, attend to the present, and anticipate the future."

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Occasionally, a person or group with meager resources fighting a powerful foe wins. One famous example is David vanquishing Goliath. Thousands of other struggles — against poverty, against oppression, against environmental degradation — have seen equally improbable outcomes. Groups with Strategic Capacity are often imaginative and reflexive, have diverse membership, ties to many networks, and knowledge of various tactics and strategies.

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