Sunday, February 25 , 2018, 5:42 pm | Fair 59º

 
 
 
 

Cynder Sinclair

Cynder Sinclair: Take a Systems Approach to Your Nonprofit’s Strategy

I was strolling down the street this week to meet friends for dinner, admiring the lovely evening sky and thinking about the day’s activities when two ladies greeted me just as I approached the crosswalk.

I recognized them immediately as committed volunteers in our nonprofit sector. After thanking me for my articles on nonprofit issues, they turned the topic of our conversation to strategic planning.

They lamented the way many organizations spend so much time creating a strategic plan only to have it sit on a shelf collecting dust.

Because I usually choose topics for my articles based on what I hear people discussing in the community, I decided to write today about a secret way of keeping your strategic plan dust free.

Is a strategic plan even worth the bother?

Planning is not easy. It takes a lot of time and energy. And then the plan seems to just sit there in a stack of resources intended to make us better leaders. Maybe we need to rethink why we want a strategic plan and how we intend to use it before we even begin.

in their popular book, Doing Good Better!, Edgar Stoesz and Chester Raber explain that, “the purpose of planning is not to decide what should be done in the future but to decide what should be done now to make desired things happen in an uncertain future.”

The prominent management expert Willie Pietersen says in his book Reinventing Strategy that “strategic planning is an oxymoron. Strategy is one thing; planning quite another.”

He further explains that “great strategy begins with divergent thinking. Planning excellence is above all an exercise in convergent thinking.”

His studies show that only 10 percent of most organizations’ actions arise out of their strategic plan. The other 90 percent of what they do comes from what Henry Mintzberg calls emergent strategy, action that emerges as a result of daily pressures and changes to the environment without guidance from a strategic plan.

If that’s true, why should we even bother with a strategic plan?

Rise above the strategic planning frustrations.

I’ve noticed one difference between organizations that are successful and those that flounder.

It’s not who is on their board or how much money they have in the bank or even how well-known they are in the community. It’s whether they consistently follow a solid, functional strategic system faithfully throughout the year.

Notice I said strategic system not strategic plan.

Peter Senge in his acclaimed book The Fifth Discipline says we tend to forget that our actions are interrelated, and we focus on snapshots of activity rather than on the whole.

He calls for “a shift of mind from seeing parts to seeing wholes, from seeing people as helpless reactors to seeing them as active participants in shaping their reality, from reacting to the present to creating the future.”

Create your four-part strategic system.

If I’ve managed to convince you that effective strategy emerges from a strategic system, not just a strategic plan, let’s see what that system looks like.

First, you must know that an effective strategic system is continuous. It has no ending.

Pietersen talks about creating an adaptive enterprise using nature as a teacher. Just as biological evolution enables individual species and entire ecosystems to evolve and adapt to changing environmental conditions, so our organizations must constantly adjust to the ever-shifting environment. We do that by devising a system.

Part One: Preparation

Laying the groundwork for your process is critical to successful outcomes. During this phase, you determine timing; choose steering committee members; identify stakeholders; establish a method of collecting constituency views; and gather needed materials such as your nonprofit’s history, programs, finances, fundraising efforts and previous strategic plans.

Part Two: Planning

The planning phase takes a great amount of time and needs to be well thought out beforehand. During this phase, your steering committee will revisit your mission, vision and values.

This can seem superfluous to some groups, but it is the bedrock of your planning. Next, you will collect and analyze data from the external environment over which you usually have little control, and then you will objectively examine your organization’s internal environment.

Now it’s time to identify critical issues you want to focus on, obstacles that may stand in the way and ways of overcoming them. This goes to the heart of the organization.

In his book The Board Member’s Guide to Strategic Planning, Fisher Howe suggests you ask the question: “What are the key points that will determine the organization’s ability to deal with the environment it must anticipate?”

Part Three: Practice

This is where the action happens. This phase outlines who will do what by when and how you will measure success.

You will create an operational plan that identifies key strategic initiatives addressing the critical issues identified in the previous phase.

Then you will ascertain which individuals or groups have the lead responsibility for each initiative, what actions will occur to accomplish the goals, what resources will be required and you will establish a timeline with benchmarks.

Finally, and very importantly, you will align the plan with the organization’s culture. Ask yourself if any of the plans are contrary to the culture and identify any changes that might need to be made to the culture to set your plan up for success.

Part Four: Appraise

This phase is the cornerstone for victory. Here you will create an evaluation system to assess the outcomes of your actions as they occur so you can make course corrections as you go along.

Many people think of a strategic plan as a rigid, static document that must be followed to the letter without allowing for alterations. This is one reason strategic plans fail.

In order to accomplish their purpose, your strategic plan must have a built-in mechanism for continuous adjustments to respond to the changing environment and to allow the organization to take advantage of new ideas as they emerge.

Every person, whether board or staff member, must know their role and be actively engaged in executing the plan.

Building a dashboard to reflect progress toward your goals is very helpful. You can use red to indicate problem areas, yellow for parts giving concern and green to show action is on track with goals. Both board and staff will find this tool helpful.

Finally, it’s best to choose one person (sometimes an outside consultant) to check in with key individuals regularly to offer support and encouragement to keep their work on track. The Friendship Center has had great success with this approach.

— Dr. Cynder Sinclair is a consultant to nonprofits and founder and CEO of Nonprofit Kinect. She has been successfully leading nonprofits for 30 years and holds a doctorate in organizational management. To read her blog, click here. To read her previous articles, click here. 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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