Where is the bold & courageous leadership of yesteryear? The leadership that is awe inspiring, engaging and future focused? The leadership that writes those timeless quote graphics we see shared virally on a daily basis?
Well the last one goes to the crux of this deep angst of mine. The last one actually highlights the current issues of leadership. The quest for the perfect soundbite, an aspirational rhetoric that lacks any real policy substance because its structured in a way that grants the speaker flexibility if they need to pivot from bad outcomes, and the populist pandering to an individual’s base rather than sticking their neck out for something because they feel morally compelled to – because it’s what’s right, not what’s right now.
For me, the absence of true civic leadership both individually and organizationally is because we seek to capture our strategic thinking in a strategic plan. Our big picture thinking is literally confined to a 3 year time period. While it is obviously aligned to our mission, vision and values, it is ultimately just a document that captures the thinking at a specific point in time, to be revisited three years later with (more than likely) new board members, a new moderator (a critical role in setting the agenda and moving the conversation) and an appetite for big changes rather than informed and/or compounding progress.
Strategic plans stifle nonprofit innovation. They are outdated relics of the corporate sector that we are told are necessary to guide our work, yet are more symbolic gestures of what we might achieve if we ‘stick to the plan’. That is obviously hyperbole, but do you know one organization that revisited their strategic plan during COVID? Not really. How could they? Many were just fighting to try and keep the doors open and the lights on rather than focusing on seeing an increase of 10% across a range of operational metrics that seem pretty insignificant in the midst of a global pandemic.
While researching this piece I found an article in the Harvard Business Review that hit the nail on the head as to my thinking. That article was published in 1994 which only goes to show how wild it is that we still follow this practice as the gold standard for nonprofit planning.
When strategic planning arrived on the scene in the mid-1960s, corporate leaders embraced it as “the one best way” to devise and implement strategies that would enhance the competitiveness of each business unit. True to the scientific management pioneered by Frederick Taylor, this one best way involved separating thinking from doing and creating a new function staffed by specialists: strategic planners. Planning systems were expected to produce the best strategies as well as step-by-step instructions for carrying out those strategies so that the doers, the managers of businesses, could not get them wrong. As we now know, planning has not exactly worked out that way.
While certainly not dead, strategic planning has long since fallen from its pedestal. But even now, few people fully understand the reason: strategic planning is not strategic thinking. Indeed, strategic planning often spoils strategic thinking, causing managers to confuse real vision with the manipulation of numbers. And this confusion lies at the heart of the issue: the most successful strategies are visions, not plans.
Now that’s a quote graphic I want to go viral.
Look, strategic plans were created to provide a step-by-step plan for staff within organizations to execute the board’s goals.
Tanya Prive in a recent Inc. article states that while strategic planning is great, in theory, but more often than not it fails. “It turns out, giving someone a plan is far less effective than aligning your team on a vision or endpoint — meaning, getting people clear on where they need to go as the starting point. That’s the difference between strategic planning (analysis) and strategic thinking (synthesis).”
And why 3 years? Was this to ensure the avoidance of the abject failures of the 5 year plans that were a notorious part of the old Soviet regime?
I get it. It’s much like the genesis for political cycles of 3 – 4 years. You need just enough time to execute your ideas and show results, but not so long of which the playing field could significantly change or the data that has informed those plans becomes somewhat out of date.
I have been the lead staff member for two strategic plans now. I have challenged their importance, and challenged those that ideated them to think bigger and through a future focused lens of what could be. And for the most part we created something better, revisited the vision and values, and in one instance updated the organization’s mission based on the evolving nature of our organization, the members it served and the sector at large.
I learned a great deal from these processes.
My suggestion for change would be to lean more into the visioning parts of organizational planning (would you expect anything less from the continued optimism of a philanthropic futurist?). This would result more in ‘strategic phases’ becoming the short to medium term norm/guide and the organizations mission, vision and values being continuously seen as the north star.
The phases would not be as rigid as 3 year plans based on calendar or fiscal year dates, allowing for them to be extended if the strategy, projects and outcomes are leading to sustained growth, and also to be wound up early if they are not working or the environment of which they were operating in has substantially shifted.
Think of it as chapters of a book. Not all of them are the same length, some share significant plotlines and reveals, while others set the tone and slowly build suspense. Some books also become a series, with all of them built off of the progress or main characters narrative arc established in the previous book.
Continuing the characters analogy, board terms don’t have to align with traditional norms. There is no need to lose stellar board members due to the fact they have served for a certain number of years. Having them serve for phases allows them to stay as long as needed, help on board and train new members and also have natural jump off points to exit the organization than abruptly resigning mid-term because they ‘don’t have the time anymore’.
This approach can also help with seamless leadership changes and ensure they build on past successes rather than forge their own path. Some organizations have three year leadership cycles where there is an in-coming chair, chair, and past chair that operate as a three headed dragon to great success, and of which would fit this phasing approach tremendously.
Other key characters such as staff can also benefit from this strategic phasing approach. This includes talent pipelines, executive officer contracts (and their extensions) and professional training that will lift up the focused work of that period of growth.
Strategic phasing can also support both progress and provide a safety net should expectations not be met. Stretch goals can be factored in and triggered once milestones are hit, rather than patting ourselves on the back when we tick off a goal a year early. They can also provide the scaffolding for the next strategic phase. As I mentioned, if goals are not being met, that phase can be wound down and a new one started. COVID would have been a prime example of what might have caused a reassessment of goals in relation to the vision of an organization, whether a realignment based on a new virtual form of delivery, or the added costs of service delivery vis a vis declining revenues.
At the end of the day, social sector organizations don’t need to follow a traditional model for determining the actions that will help them achieve their goals. They don’t answer to shareholders, and their models for scale just aren’t comparable. If an organization is successful they have to raise more funds and hire more staff, they don’t benefit from the economies of scale that underpin business, they can’t make things ‘cheaper’ as there are in some instances literally lives at stake.
Strategy ultimately describes how the ends (goals) will be achieved by the means (resources). A piece of paper that guides that process during a finite time period, which has more than likely been generated by the bureaucratic theatre of a board retreat won’t make it more successful. It’s like providing grants – pulling funding if they don’t hit certain milestones, rather than asking why they are not hitting them, can they use more money or can we provide more technical assistance to help them succeed.
So let’s rethink what strategic planning looks like and realize that the traditional outputs shouldn’t be boxes to be ticked, but opportunities to excel.