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Saturday, February 16 , 2019, 8:30 am | Fair 52º


Cynder Sinclair: Strategic Planning — Four Steps to Revolutionizing Your Strategy

“Sure, we have a strategic plan,” declared Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines, “it’s called ‘doing things.’” Not a fan of strategic planning, Herb maintained action is where the game is won or lost. Unfortunately, some truth lies in his position: Many strategic plans don’t result in action — at least not the kind of strategic action that mobilizes organizations toward their goals.

Even the famous Henry Mintzberg, author of The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, called “strategic planning” an oxymoron. He claimed succinctly: “Strategy is not planning.”

Yet most nonprofit leaders recognize the importance of having an up-to-date strategic plan. In fact, many funders require it. Make no mistake, regular strategic planning is critical for nonprofit success. We don’t want to throw the proverbial strategic baby out with the planning bath water. Rather, we want the best of both: strategic thinking and executable action.

When asked about his strategy during World War II, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Eisenhower would applaud a creative, vigorous planning process. But for strategy to be really effective it must be a continuous cycle rather than a time-limited process. We can’t just do the planning, check it off our to-do list, nicely bind the planning document and proudly display it on our shelf.

Successful nonprofit leaders know that the strategic planning process is just the beginning, laying the foundation for real action in real time. The best strategic plans begin with a “plan for the plan,” including process steps, timelines, accountabilities and outcomes. The process can take anywhere from one to six months, depending on the organization’s circumstances. It’s best to include a wide variety of carefully chosen stakeholders to comprise the strategic planning task group — board members, leadership and line staff, community leaders, clients and key donors.

Mintzberg cautions that, regardless of how long the process takes, only 10 percent of actions arise out of the strategic planning — he calls this “realized strategy.” He refers to the other 90 percent as “emergent strategy” — the series of ad-hoc initiatives, reactions, decisions and choices that managers make in response to daily pressures, without guidance from overarching strategic concept. This “real strategy” is what most organizations end up following.

So, how can we get out ahead of this strategy reality? How can we gain a modicum of control over the results?

We begin by releasing our overpowering need for control, understanding that the speed of environmental change will continue to escalate, and then trusting our ability to respond with emergent strategy. In other words, we start with the strategy and the planning comes later. This seemingly backwards approach to strategic planning can result in stunningly transformative results. Here’s how the four steps to revolutionizing strategy work:

» 1. Conduct a situational analysis. Identify trends, challenges and opportunities in your organization’s rapidly changing external environment and internal reality. Challenge existing assumptions by asking penetrating questions. List your competitors and distinguish your differentiation. Note what has been working for you and for others and which activities have not yielded fruit. Generate insight into future environmental changes and identify lessons learned from past actions — yours and others. Examine market data to objectively assess needs of your target population and to determine how well you are achieving your mission.

» 2. Identify strategic alternatives. This step focuses on your clients, their needs and what you can do to better meet their needs. Who are your competitors, and what will you do differently to achieve greater value for your clients? Be sure you have developed a compelling vision statement that clearly describes the future reality your organization is trying to create. Then analyze the gap between your current results and your future vision to determine your strategic priorities. Operationalize your priorities by identifying alternative actions that will transform your current reality into your future vision.

» 3. Align the organization with the strategic priorities. Now that you’ve identified the strategies, it’s time for the planning. By doing the “strategic planning” at this stage in the process you will focus on how best to create organizational systems that support your identified strategies rather than choosing goals based on old paradigms of thinking. It’s likely that, at this point, you have made some dramatic changes to your organization’s historical strategies. Such significant changes require realignment throughout the organization. All systems must work in unison to support the strategic priorities: measurement and reward systems, organization structure and process, culture, and employee competencies and motivation. Ask yourself the question: Do our systems and processes support and reward the behavior that will result in success?

» 4. Execute the strategy and evaluate the results. Once strategic priorities are identified and the organization is optimally aligned for success, it’s time for action and learning. Don’t allow yourself to become locked into a set of action steps though. Rather think of the steps as a guide for action. See yourself as a scientist, experimenting to see which actions yield the best results. Be prepared to make changes when it appears a tweak to the action will improve outcomes. Approaching execution in such a transformative way will create an adaptive, nimble, more responsive organization ready to meet the challenges of our rapidly-changing world.

Progressing through these four steps doesn’t happen in a straight line. You will need flexibility and an open mind to successfully navigate these strategic waters. For this to be a transformative process, you must continually loop back to the first step by analyzing the newly created situation. Determining what you have learned and applying new insights will result in ever greater success in achieving the organization’s vision.

Because this process is so dynamic and organic, many organizations find that a “strategic champion” who works closely with the executive director can provide the support necessary to keep the organization on track toward continued success. The strategic champion can be a designated staff member or an outside consultant.

This unique approach to strategic planning offers a means to creating vital outputs, rather than an end in itself. Therefore, the focus must always be on the outputs. Are the results of your actions propelling you closer to your vision? Think of this process as a continuous learning opportunity, mobilizing your organization toward a sustainable future.

For more information on strategic planning, we invite you to click here.

— Cynder Sinclair, Ph.D., is a local consultant to nonprofits and founder and CEO of Nonprofit Kinect. She can be contacted at 805.689.2137, or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). The opinions expressed are her own.

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