The words “strategic planning” send chills down the spine of most reasonable people. That’s due in part to less than positive experiences in a process that was called “strategic planning.” Given the option of watching paint dry or engaging a strategic planning process, most would choose the former. Consultants like me share a significant degree of the blame for this reality. Many of us have made an abomination out of a process that reasonably should invigorate, energize, and inspire leadership teams of nonprofit organizations and businesses alike.
The problem, at least in part is that strategic planning has been marketed as an event. You have an offsite kumbaya gathering of the executive leadership to do strategic planning. You meet for a day or perhaps two and at the end of it you emerge with an extensive work of art called a “strategic plan.” Most often it promptly gets forgotten and there is little if any follow through on the conversations, decisions and identified priorities that emerged out of the exercise. Some consultant walks away with a handsome fee, and a group of executive leaders leave naively thinking they’ve made significant progress only to wake up a month or two down the road completely disillusioned with the entire process vowing “never” to do that again! As a result capable, well-meaning executive leaders abandon a process that if done well, can be the very life blood of the organization, injecting, passion, energy, focus and inspiration into the organizations bloodstream! Why? Because strategic planning has been relegated to an event rather than an ongoing process.
Towards a Solution
The term “strategic planning” is really a misnomer. What if you called it “strategic thinking” instead? Now I know that merely changing the name doesn’t necessarily alter the essence of the process, but I’m suggesting in this case that a subtle adjustment can make a profound difference on both the experience and outcome of the process. The format might look very similar. It might be an offsite event facilitated by an external consultant but the dynamics are very different. The purpose is to think strategically about the organization, to take a look back at where you’ve come from, to evaluate where you are, and to then think strategically about where you need to go as an organization given your past and present realities, and the future you envision.
But strategic thinking doesn’t stop when the event ends. The process I’m proposing, incorporates strategic thinking into the organizational DNA where every decision in every department involves a strategic thinking process. Every challenge is viewed as an opportunity to think strategically about how best to address not just the symptom but the root cause. Every request to add programs or services is first evaluated through the lens of strategic thinking. How does this fit with what we’ve identified as our organizational priorities? Every staff hire is filtered through a rigorous grid of strategic thinking to ensure that the person and the role fits with the overall organization priorities.
Strategic Planning 3.0
There’s a need for a software update so to speak when it comes to strategic planning. Strategic Planning v3.0 if you will. My experience in the nonprofit sector is extensive and I’ve observed, developed and utilized a number of strategic planning models. Some of those I’ve developed, I’m embarrassed to put my name to. But I’ve found a model that in my experience addresses the identified problem and radically transforms the outcomes for the organizations who’ve experienced the model. I won’t go into a lot of detail other than to say that two of the four steps to the process involve Strategic Thinking AND Execution Planning. The Execution Planning piece is critical to seeing strategic thinking become an integral DNA molecule in the organization, and if done well it holds every executive leader, every department, every employee accountable to do the harder work of thinking strategically as a way of life, not just during the event. The Execution Planning piece identifies specific, measurable, time-lined outcomes with each outcome assigned to one specific person. That piece dramatically increases the likelihood of translating the strategic thinking into a clear, concise implementation plan. Therein lies the secret.
The worst thing you could do is abandon strategic thinking as a key part of your organizations DNA. Strategic thinking done well should send chills down your spine – but for very different reasons! Those chills ought to be chills of excitement as you see the incredible potential of what your organization is capable of when strategic thinking becomes a way of life in the day to day management of your organization, not a kumbaya event! Find someone who has a proven track record of inspiring this kind of life, vitality and energy into nonprofit organizations and then arrange to have them facilitate the process with you and your team! It will be worth EVERY penny you spend on it! But make sure they’re using the Strategic Planning V3.0 operating system! Tech support is no longer offered on Strategic Planning V2.0!