Strategic Planning Must Die – Time To Go FAST

We need it, but we hate it. What if we replaced the strategic planning process with a model which develops strategic thinking?

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 actions 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, a 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.

These poor experiences result in cynicism about the strategy development process. What should be a dynamic exercise that 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.

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“Bring me that strategic plan”

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.

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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 expected 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.

CAUTION: Traditional Strategic Planning May Induce Drowsiness

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!

Let’s Go FAST

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 that 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.

Photo Credits: Graphic Stock and Bill Jelen @WeReportSpace via Unsplash

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Michael Brand