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Supporting a Culture of Health through Emergent Strategy at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

FSG worked with Robert Wood Johnson Foundation leaders and staff over a 2-year period to embrace an emergent strategy and integrate a range of systems thinking tools and techniques into their work. As a result, the Foundation has taken on a new approach to strategy development and implementation that is rooted in a deep commitment to continuous learning.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) is the largest health-focused foundation in the U.S. Since its founding in 1972, the Foundation's understanding of how to best support the health of Americans through philanthropy has evolved significantly. In 2014, after years of working within the health care system and using a traditional strategy and evaluation model, RWJF decided to try a new approach to improve health, well-being, and equity for all in the U.S. It was important that the approach could acknowledge the complexity and interconnectedness of many issues affecting Americans’ health and provide the flexibility to address the underlying social and emotional determinants of health. To make greater progress toward its goal of creating a “Culture of Health,” RWJF chose to embrace emergent strategy.

Over 2 years, FSG and RWJF collaborated to support leadership and staff in adopting the principles of emergent strategy. This effort included 4 categories of work:

  1. Testing and refining the approach
  2. Building staff capacity
  3. Coaching and technical assistance
  4. Reflecting with peer foundations

Testing and refining the approach

At the start of the project, RWJF asked FSG to pilot the emergent strategy approach with a group of staff who had been working in the broad area of early childhood. FSG began the process with a strategic review of RWJF’s work in this area in order to help the group better understand the larger system of early childhood care and education, and the Foundation’s role in it. FSG reviewed relevant literature and researched leading trends in the field; reviewed internal strategy documents, grantee applications, and grant reports; and interviewed grantees, partners, and experts in the field. FSG used the findings to guide members of an internal working group through a series of reflective exercises aimed at helping the team better understand the system and consider adjustments to their strategy.

FSG also planned and facilitated a reflection session for RWJF staff, grantees, and external experts to deepen the working group’s understanding of the early childhood system and identify the ways in which the Foundation was supporting early childhood across programs and teams. FSG synthesized findings from the conversations, including illustrative system maps, into reports for the Foundation to inform next steps in the strategy development process. At the completion of this phase of the work, FSG developed a comprehensive toolkit so RWJF staff could lead similar reviews for other areas of work.  

Building staff capacity

Following on the success of the pilot project, FSG facilitated 2 emergent strategy workshops for all Foundation staff in order to strengthen their ability to apply core concepts of emergent strategy to their work.

The first workshop focused on skill-building. During this session, participants practiced using a variety of tools to support emergent strategy, including actor mapping, trend mapping, ecocycle mapping, and appreciative inquiry. At the end of the workshop, FSG provided each participant with a comprehensive, practical guide to applying each of the tools in their own work.

The second workshop focused on core principles and key practices of emergent strategy. FSG presented an overview of the Foundation’s new approach to continuous learning and adaptation and engaged participants in small group discussions aimed at developing learning questions.

Coaching and technical assistance

As RWJF staff began to incorporate the principles of emergent strategy into their everyday work, FSG held regular check-ins with program team leads to provide technical assistance and answer questions that arose in their work. FSG provided feedback on strategy documents and learning questions, guiding Foundation staff in refining their approach and focusing their learning activities on the most important and timely strategic questions.

Reflecting with peer foundations

Finally, as RWJF neared the 2-year mark of its transition to emergent strategy, Foundation leaders asked FSG for a perspective on how their efforts were faring, and how this compared to the experiences of other foundations experimenting with emergent strategy. To answer this question, FSG interviewed more than a dozen funders across the U.S. and Canada and shared findings with the full group of interviewees. Then, FSG facilitated an interactive reflection session to engage participants in focused, practical conversations about the mechanics of emergent strategy.

Today, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation continues to improve their efforts to create a culture of health across the U.S. using the principles and practices of emergent strategy.

About the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

For more than 40 years the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has worked to improve health and health care. They are working with others to build a national Culture of Health, enabling everyone in America to live longer, healthier lives.