Preconditions For Action

“An infinitesimal change in starting conditions can have enormous consequences later.” - Drift into failure, from Hunting Broken Components To Understanding Complex Systems, Sidney Dekker

Why Preconditions?

The success of any journey depends on preparation. Preconditions can be seen as the prerequisite phase to putting in place the conditions for strategic action. The ideas, people, power structures, institutions, and relationships that constitute the founding moments of a strategy will often determine the success or failure of the strategy itself.

What Are Preconditions?

The Preconditions phase has both an internal and external focus. The internal involves the building of healthy relationships between co-conveners and the external is establishing the most effective conditions for strategy as action. The external includes (1) Agreement on the Challenge (2) Putting in place Resources (financial, political and social) commensurate with the scale of the challenge (3) Finding the People required to credibly mount a strategic response and (4) Determining the Strategic Direction of the effort.


Building a strong container between co-conveners is an essential part of aligning on the prerequisites required for a social lab, within the internal part of the preconditions phase. While the external preconditions, help ‘sense’ what is alive in the system, the internal preconditions explore how to build a conducive work environment for key actors involved in the lab.

This approach could also be seen as an ‘Inside Out Strategy’ that focuses on the internal culture, structure and practices that have an impact on the outside strategies for addressing complex social challenges. The way to conceptualise this strategy is as a ‘strategy value chain’ that stretches from the highest levels of an organisation, through to the middle actors of the system, and down to the activities on the ground.

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External Preconditions

What is the challenge you wish to address? Each challenge has features that are specific to it, in terms of geography, scale and other details. A challenge statement must give some ideas as to the where and at what scale, as well as communicating why the challenge matters.

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One of the most common challenges with most activities for addressing complex social challenges is that they are under-resourced. For social labs the scale of the work needs to be decided with resource requirements being linked to the scale of the challenge and to projected results.

Social labs are made up of multiple teams, from lab teams to champions. The success of a social lab is a function of the people that are a part of it. Who you need to participate in the lab for it to succeed can be broken into two dimensions related to the challenge — representation of the system and the skills needed to execute the lab itself.

Responding strategically to complex social challenges requires making a choice in direction. Making a decision about strategic direction requires understanding the system through dialogue with key stakeholders. This approach is inductive. We identify a strategic direction based on what the evidence is telling us, not on a predefined hypothesis that we are trying to prove.

Preconditions Case: Grove3547

Grove 3547 is a next-generation social lab. Launched in 2016 as a partnership between The Chicago Community Trust and Roller Strategies, Grove demonstrates that coalitions of diverse actors can effectively come together to address the many challenges faced by the residents of Chicago. The core challenge that Grove focuses on is:

How can we work together to support young people in Chicago to develop resilient livelihoods?

The Grove Archive is a documentary archive, spanning the time period from April to December 2016. The material in this archive comes from the Preconditions phase and Cycle 1 of the lab.