Strategic Planning Must Die – It’s Time To Go FAST

Strategic Planning Must Die – It’s Time To Go FAST

Ah, strategic planning.  In survey after survey, the majority of nonprofit board members express two strong sentiments:   1) strategic planning is a necessity and; 2) they hate the results they get from their strategic planning efforts.

Strategy development is critical for us. It’s the key to envisioning a better future and taking mindful action to move in that direction. When thinking strategically we’re considering the world 5-10-15 years from now and not simply reacting to the marketplace on a daily basis. In today’s fast-paced economy, focused strategy helps us maintain our sanity while nurturing the organization we love.

So while nonprofits believe strategy is necessary, we’re not getting the benefits hoped for from our investment.Tradtional Strategic Planning Is Useless

These poor experiences result in a cynicism about the strategy development process. What should be a dynamic exercise which has a big impact on our future becomes something that’s simply tolerated. And when our people feel as though they’re just sitting through yet another boring and predictable get-together, they’re not engaged, not creative, and not innovative.

So what are some of the most common ways we kill nonprofit strategic development? Consider these three:

Strategic Killer #1 – Failure To Understand What Strategy Is And What It Is Not.

Far too often the “strategic plans” produced are crammed with initiatives summed up as: 1) Do what we’re already doing, just do more of it; 2) Do what everyone else is doing, but spend less money doing it; 3) Do something new because it looks like someone will pay for it.

This is not strategy. It’s only an operational plan to grow our organization and its budget. True strategy sets us on a course to do something no one else can do. It means deliberately choosing a set of activities to deliver a unique benefit to society. It’s all about creating social value.

This value is rooted in our vision. Vision is what we want the future to look like and strategy is the approach we use to make that happen.

Strategic Killer #2 – A Long And Complex Planning Process

There are books and books and books a plenty written by academics and consultants on strategic planning.   Most of their models come out of working with high profile clients possessing significant budgets and a large pool of employees. Because these processes can be effective in larger nonprofits, funders soon push them as ‘best practices’ which we are Complex strategic planningexpected to adopt. But context matters. It matters a lot.

So when our smaller nonprofits work with these intricate processes (and devote $$$ for pricey consultants) we expend so much time on minutia that when it comes to actually thinking about the future we’re mentally exhausted. As a consequence, our team is just trying to get it done and out of the way. Our energy is drained, which is never good for strategic thought.

Strategic Killer #3 – Inappropriate Facilitators

There are two types of facilitator which kill our strategy development efforts. One is the outside ‘expert’ who comes with a bevy of academic credentials or a high profile list of past clients. They have their model replete with jargon. This can leave us feeling intimidated and thus deferring to going where the facilitator leads us.

 

After all, they are the ‘expert’. Engaging this type of ‘expert’ often results in a document which all will voice consent, but few will commit enthusiastically. These are the types of ‘Strategic Plans’ which wind up gathering dust on a shelf.

The other type of risky facilitator is the one with too close of personal ties to the leaders. Sometimes we’ll try to use our own board members or executive director. Other times it will be a close associate of one of our leaders. Both are bad ideas.

Consciously or subconsciously, utilizing a moderator with personal ties puts many of us on high alert for hidden agendas. As we’ve witnessed time and time again, a facilitator not perceived as a neutral third party will result in participants consuming precious energy on protecting today’s status quo rather than exploring bold steps towards tomorrow’s vision.

So faced with a misunderstanding of strategy, a cumbersome planning model, and inadequate facilitation should we give up on the idea of strategy formulation?   Heck no!

Strategic Planning at the speed of business

The Solution – F.A.S.T. Strategy.   For smaller organizations with limited time and budget, rather than devote huge chunks of assets on old fashioned strategic planning, a better investment will be in nurturing strategic thinking.

Forward Action Strategic Thinking (F.A.S.T.) is a method which puts our limited time and energy to best use. We succeed by dispensing with many of the momentum sucking routines which the ‘experts’ impose upon us.

F.A.S.T. Strategy centers on those aspects of strategy development which truly matter. By this method we keep our people mentally alert and engaged.

To commence, our team must be grounded in a compelling mission and an inspirational vision. Fortunately for us, Mission and Vision Statements have become core competencies for even the most modest of nonprofits. Thus in Step Zero we evaluate whether our mission and vision are up to snuff. If not, we pause to get this right. First things first.

F.A.S.T. incorporates a set of short pre-session online exercises and a rapid paced, highly interactive, face-to-face half-day session. The end products are two crucial tools our leaders need in order to select and test potential strategies: Strategy Criteria and Big Questions.

Strategy Criteria is a set of guides for assessing potential strategies. This induces everyone to look at promising initiatives with the same pair of glasses as well as using the same standards to judge what may be effective.

The other product of our time together is a set of Big Questions. In his book on nonprofit strategy, David LaPiana defines these inquiries as an opportunity or threat to which we must absolutely respond.   Often, this is outside the span of our current endeavors hence requiring a new strategy.

Note what we’re not yet doing: we’re not selecting strategies nor writing action plans.  These will evolve organically as we use our Criteria and Questions to encourage strategic thinking.

Replacing long, laborious traditional strategic planning with a nimble process model supports us looking into the future without getting bogged down in details. Employing F.A.S.T. Strategy gets us moving at the speed of business.

Are you ready for F.A.S.T. Strategy?  Let’s start the conversation.  Email or call 814-933-1408

35 Comments

  1. 18 month strategic plans tied to a major change (rebranding, capital campaign, etc.) are far more effective than a 5 year effort that is shelved and forgotten once approved.
    A shorter time frame with easily defined checkpoints for performance by board and staff SHOULD prevent or illuminate hidden agendas, and bring the process to a rapid successful close.
    Should changes be needed in route, they can be discussed and approved by monthly board meetings.

    Reply
    • Agree with your take. Of course, doing nothing is more effective than a 5 year effort that is shelved and forgotten once approved. To expend all that effort for a document that goes nowhere is so incredibly demoralizing. Too many people have had such bad experiences with strategic planning that they instinctively flinch when the topic arises.

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  2. My experience funding so many organizations to bring in a strategic consultant is that the nonprofit eventually would be shoe-horned to fit with the consultant’s planning model, rather than the right model being used to fit the nonprofit. Roughly 1/2 of nonprofits have budget’s under $250,000 meaning they a small of staff and have working boards. So I could grant them a chunk of money for strategic planning, but they didn’t have an abundance of time to engage. So we needed something to get them moving strategically (small victories). The FAST model appears to accomplish this for those smaller agencies.

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  3. Perhaps my cynicism arising from years of strategic planning initiatives is showing, but isn’t this just replacing one form of facilitation and a one model fits all, cookie-cutter approach with another? It is rather difficult to assess the F..A.S.T. model given the info-mercial nature of this posting. Is this really what LinkedIn has become? I see more and more self-serving advertising than geniine posts providing information and connections.

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    • It’s actually this type of cynicism I’m trying to address. FAST is not designed as a one-size-fits-all model. It’s for small and medium sized organizations that can’t seem to get any strategic momentum and lack the time/money to work with the more complex strategic planning models.

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      • Well thank you for the clarification and I hope that’s true. I agree with your general premise and agree that a new way needs to be found. I am just unable to assess whether your proposed solution is the answer or not.

        And let me be clear I am not cynical towards strategic planning; in fact I’m a strong believer of it. I am simply urging caution with regards to new methods of long-term planning. Sometimes the tried-and-true methodologies remain the best. There is a reason why year after year, decade after decade organizations and corporations of all sizes and functions continue to employ the same approach. Yes partially it is because of inertia and the “we have always done it this way” approach. And yes in some cases it is simply because no other methodology presents itself or is known to the parties involved. But it may also be because, by and large, that approach works in the vast majority of cases. That is not to say that other approaches do not work and in fact it is not to say that other appoaches are not welcome. In fact I welcome your approach and I wish you the best with your F.A.S.T. model.

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  4. I have experienced all the scenarios you’ve mentioned, either as a staff member or as a board member, and “enjoyed” the frustrations that ensued. A clear understanding of the organization’s resources is so important, because taking on more than is possible will kill all attempts at innovation.

    Thank you for great suggestions, and a nice model, and YES, Vision and Mission should ALWAYS be the starting point (and should be informed through stakeholder consultation.)

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  5. I agree that the typical strategic planning activity at most nonprofits is lengthy and often nonproductive. That’s why I created a process that includes board, key staff, and others major constituents outside the organization. In this way, ownership of whatever is ultimately in the plan is built among those who are needed for the goals to be achieved. My book: The Nonprofit Development Companion (Wiley, 2010) has a chapter devoted to a productive strategic planning process that has worked at every client that has used it.

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  6. What he is saying is that one size and pace of strategic planning does not fit all. Small budgets and busy boards need a fast-paced, turbo plan. I can help.

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  7. I can’t disagree more. It’s another “out” for Board members who are already falling down on the job at their agencies. If Board members are not up to the task of strategic planning, they should quit or be honorably relieved of their duties. At heart, the problem is the recruitment of Board members. Better to have a small, quality Board. Hold fast to your expectations, demand performance, have fellow Board members monitor the performance of other Board members, and have their continued service contingent on serving actively, connecting and advocating, and giving and getting. Too many organizations recruit warm bodies, community “leaders” who have connections but won’t utilize them for the advancement of their charity, and the like. Expectations have steadily fallen for years to the point that we’re rationalizing poor performance and low expectations. Remember the cardinal rule of the 501c3, “Board members are never off the hook.”

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    • Agreed. Board member recruitment and training is a critical factor in NP success. Without people who are able and willing to engage on important organizational issues, it is difficult to move an organization forward. If a weak board will allow a consultant or ED to lead in strategic planning, and are willing to learn from them and become engaged, then perhaps progress can be made.

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  8. This sounds good. But one element that is missing from a lot of strategic plans–and requested often by potential funders–is identifying and measuring program outcomes. Without this, no strategic plan is complete.

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  9. My experience funding so many organizations to bring in a strategic consultant is that the nonprofit eventually would be shoe-horned to fit with the consultant’s planning model, rather than the right model being used to fit the nonprofit. Roughly 1/2 of nonprofits have budget’s under $250,000 meaning they a small of staff and have working boards. So I could grant them a chunk of money for strategic planning, but they didn’t have an abundance of time to engage. So we needed something to get them moving strategically (small victories). The FAST model appears to accomplish this for those smaller agencies.

    Reply
  10. I am a bit biased here, given my line of work, however, strategic planning is not something that should be rushed through and cannot be something that Board members see as a burden. Over the years I have witnessed a desire, typically fueled by Boards or management, to spend a great deal of time and effort building the perfect plan, but then there are no resources available to implement any of it.
    I applaud Michael’s drive to make the planning process less onerous, however, I have found that few Boards are full of folks that are well versed in developing strategy. They tend to need more support than some pre-work and expedited discussions.
    I also agree that consultants with ties to the organization can have agendas, but that should be addressed via a good selection process.
    As with all things there is a balance that is needed. NFPs should expect their consultants to be flexible and responsive. If that is not happening, they should find new consultants.

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  11. Strategic planning is critical to organizational effectiveness, but must be carefully tailored to the size, type, and character of the nonprofit; boiler-plate plans are a waste of money. I have personally had great success on behalf of organizations by taking a very hands-on approach, doing a thorough analysis of all areas of the organization, and working with board and staff to create and then launch the plans.

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  12. Strategic planning must also have built-in flexibility and agility; most smaller nonprofits have to be able to adjust to changing funding environments and other factors, while staying focused on mission.

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  13. I agree with the point you are making, Michael Brand (michaelbrand dot org). When you talk about strategic planning in nonprofit organizations it’s important to remember that what happens at board meetings for large nonprofits bears little resemblance to what happens in small organizations. Yet some people will throw their hands up in horror if you suggest that, for the boards of small nonprofits, strategic planning is not an important role – they simply don’t have the time for it. Some people believe that strategic planning is an important role for the members of every nonprofit board but research tells us that is simply not true.

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  14. Strategic Plans are not static, boring documents when linked with Action Plans that assign staff/board leads. Action Plans with clear deliverables and dates makes Strategic Plan’s come alive! Strategic Plans are living, breathing statements that, when married with clear Action Plans, guide progress. THAT’S THE STORY!!

    Reply
  15. Strategic Planning is vital to a non-profit. whether it is a one day planning retreat or a 6 – 12 month process, depends on the organizations history with planning, sophistication of the staff, board and volunteers. Planning is paramount to healthy, growing, successful NPOs.

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  16. One of my observations is that the term “Strategic Planning” has taken on such a pejorative meaning. I believe this comes from the many who have had such a negative experience with the process. Strategy is crucial, but not everyone has the time/money to do full blown strategic planning. When we try to force smaller organizations to adopt elaborate planning processes, it leaves a bitter taste. That’s why the need for more compact models.

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  17. An interesting and useful take. Strategy Development rather than Strategic Planning. Restatong the obvious, the outcome should be strategies, not plans. All too many times I have seen these exercises ending foucusing on how we will get there, rather than where we’re going!

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  18. Yes, yes & yes. For years, I have used the language of strategic ‘coordination’ versus strategic ‘planning’ to suggest that the purpose is no longer to attempt to forecast, 3-5 years out, precisely where the organization will be on the opportunity frontier. Rather, the purpose is to determine what tools and resources, “readiness” it will need to demonstrate in order to take advantage of the opportunities, and address the challenges, that will present themselves on that frontier.

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  19. For years I have used a simplified strategic planning process which has been lambasted by strategic planning gurus, but enthusiastically embraced by nonprofits…glad to hear someone else agrees with me!

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  20. Nonprofits would be better served by creating and embedding a strategic mindset that can serve as an anchor and a foundation for ongoing strategic planning efforts.

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  21. The biggest problem I’ve seen in the past with these (not at this organization, but elsewhere) is that the final product ends up on a shelf.

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  22. To quote Peter Drucker, “More important than strategic planning is strategic thinking”

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  23. A strategic plan to an organization is like a sweater to a person. If its doesn’t fit (feel right), it sits on a shelf. Strategic planning is extremely difficult or impossible for someone to do, if they are not used to thinking strategically, which most people are not capable of doing. Paying attention to details and implementation are what you are used to doing, if you want to survive.

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  24. Strategic planning is a process, not a specific product. There are many ways to do it and you can call it whatever you want. If you don’t like the way you’ve done it before, do it differently and call it something else. But don’t dump it. It is absolutely necessary.

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  25. This a great discussion. As I reflect on the comments and the many processes I have been involved, the challenge includes the ability to get leadership to think strategically to develop a strategic criteria and address the big questions. They are looking for a “road map.” They relate to the initiatives so that is where they want to focus. It is the role of a good facilitator to help them expand their thinking, and they have to be ready and willing to go beyond what they know and feel comfortable with.

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    • Thinking strategically. That’s where I’ve witnessed so many strategic planning teams get lost in the weeds. Most models are so complex that participants get overwhelmed and begin to fall back into their comfort zone, which is program planning. Most success I’ve had with FAST is those organizations that have burned out on previous processes.

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  26. I agree with many points raised here. However, I want to emphasize that with the nonprofit clients I work with, assessment and analysis (looking at trend data, environmental scanning, membership surveys and interviews with board members and key staff) are as important as strategy and follow through. This doesn’t have to be expensive as staff and volunteers sometimes assume these duties. Then you need a work plan with metrics, resources, time lines, and regular check points for evaluation and tweaking, wholesale modification, and/or full abandonment or replacement of elements as circumstances require. I have seen great results with this process but only when regular strategic discussions ensue. And I believe you can plan well for 3 or 4 years then, but not 5
    or 10.

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  27. I’ve also experienced consultants who – for the reasons Michael outlines – actually impede strategic thinking. Occasionally though you strike gold especially if you can find someone who helps Board and management see the organisation as others see it – which can be a shock!

    One of the underlying assumptions, which I’d question, is that Boards and managers are gearing up for strategic thinking once every few years. What’s happening in the rest of the Board meetings? If the regular agendas are squeezing out strategic thinking, that needs to change. The organisation’s purposes, strategic ends and impact need to be front and centre of Board thinking – not just on the strategic planning day!

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  28. There is much to like in this article. We have burned out too many good boards with overly technical strategic planning facilitated by consultants who are better at marketing themselves than at leading a group discussion.

    My connection is that in her previous position, our Fund Development Officer went through Michael Brand’s FAST process with her board and staff. She can’t be effusive enough about Michael and the process. She described it as an energy boost for a nonprofit that was lethargic and stagnant. It gave them the rough foundation for future action and most importantly, got them moving rather than sitting around analyzing.

    Our agency is much larger so our strategic planning process is much more intricate, but this a great model for those desperately needing motion.

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    • Hi Elaine. Tell Keri I said ‘hi’. She was a champ on the UW team. We all knew Keri was destined to move on to bigger and better things but were glad to have her for those three years.

      Reply

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