In his seminal book, “Reinventing Strategy,” Willie Pietersen says, “Strategic planning is an oxymoron.” Strategy is one thing; planning quite another, Pietersen claims. He explains that strategy begins with divergent thinking, whereas planning is an exercise in convergent thinking.

When we try to combine them both, the result is usually 90 percent planning and only 10 percent strategy. But strategy is where the action happens — the secret to success. Therefore, Pietersen, who serves as an adviser to many global companies, including Sony, Ericsson and Deloitte & Touche, recommends that we put strategy first. He frames it as action versus thinking.

Henry Mintzberg, author of the classic management text “The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning,” agrees with Pietersen, explaining that “emergent strategy” is the source of most successful organizations. This term describes the ad-hoc initiatives, reactions, decisions and choices that managers make in response to daily pressures, without guidance from any overarching strategic concept. He’s not suggesting that we ignore planning, but that we understand the critical role of strategy.

Reordering Strategy and Planning

Chris Bradley, senior partner at McKinsey, recommends a two-track process. First, we need an efficient way of doing our plans — making sure the budget lines up every year and that we are in line with our mission. But we need a parallel track to do strategy, and that has completely different timing. Bradley says that by the time we come to planning, we should already have our strategy in mind.

Ask yourself this question: What are the few things our organization must do outstandingly well to achieve our mission and serve our community with excellence? The answer reveals your best strategy. The answer will make your nonprofit organization agile and inspire success. The answer will inform your planning.

The world moves rapidly, and priorities change quickly. So, investing the time in regular assessment of your plan and aligning it with your strategy is essential. Review your plan every three months to make sure it is optimizing your strategy. And remember, you can’t finish the strategy meeting until you have figured out what you will do tomorrow to start putting it into action.

Achieving Strategic Agility

Pietersen recommends five key competencies to achieve organizational adaptation. These skills are crucial for mobilizing the collective intelligence and creativity of your people and for forging the integrated system of strategy and leadership that you will need to succeed in today’s complex and high-speed environment.

» 1. Insight. Gaining insight into your organization requires that you challenge existing assumptions and explore alternatives. Here you will conduct a situation analysis using a combination of scrutiny and brainstorming to scan and interpret your organization’s environment and its internal realities. The insights you discover through this process will be crystallized into concise diagnostic statements that can be readily understood by everyone.

» 2. Focus. Intense focus on the right things is key to identifying effective strategies. Use the insights you developed to make the most intelligent strategic choices about where and how to deploy your scarce resources in support of your plan for achieving your organization’s mission. Decide who your primary customer is, how you are different from other organizations, and which priorities will result in achieving greater value for those you serve. A clearly defined vision statement can help narrow your focus.

» 3. Alignment. Careful alignment within all aspects of your organization is the secret to implementing your strategies. When you change your organization’s strategy, you can’t use the old framework. Consider how you reward employees and measure their success, how you are organized and how decisions are made, your internal culture, and how you motivate and train your people. All of these elements must be aligned with your new strategy.

» 4. Execution. Effective implementation of your strategy requires a mindset of experimentation. This step should include a deliberate set of experiments to see what will actually work. Like a scientist, you will learn as much from your failures as from your successes. This step ultimately loops back to step one, giving you greater insight into what will best achieve your goals.

» 5. Renewal. Once you become proficient at the first four competencies, you must continue to repeat them over and over again without ever stopping. You must be on a constant cycle of learning, focusing, aligning and executing.

When it’s time to begin your nonprofit organization’s strategic planning, consider looking at your organization through the lens of organizational alignment. Identify those few things that your organization must do outstandingly well to achieve your mission and serve your community with excellence. Then build your plan to support those strategies.

— 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 cynder@nonprofitkinect.org. The opinions expressed are her own.

— 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 cynder@nonprofitkinect.org. The opinions expressed are her own.