STRATEGIC PLANNING FOR SUCCESS
By Timothy S. Jacobson
~The Nonprofit Provocateur~
“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
—Henry David Thoreau
Why Create a Strategic Plan?
Often, strategic planning is derided as consisting of fluff—lofty words and principles that get written into a document that merely sits on a shelf until the next planning interval arrives. In fact, this type of planning and implementation occurs frequently.
There are at least a few reasons why strategic plans sometimes end up providing little value to organizations.
One cause of worthless plans is the self-fulfilling prophecy. If leaders of an organization fail to take the planning process seriously and view the resulting mission and vision statements and plan as nothing more than marketing fluff for the organization, that will be the plan’s destiny.
Another cause of strategic plans with little practical application or benefit is a process of developing a plan that does not secure buy-in from key leaders. For example, perhaps a consultant will spoon-feed an off-the-shelf plan to a busy organization, and the leadership team doesn’t internalize or take ownership of the goals.
Yet another reason strategic plans sit unused on a shelf is a flawed process that values appearance over substance or neglects to incorporate measurable goals. In addition, a plan can be so broad and vague that it sets no parameters to guide the organization. As Michael Porter said, “The essence of strategy is that you must set limits on what you're trying to accomplish.” Harvey Mackay pointed out that “[a] dream is just a dream. A goal is a dream with a plan and a deadline.”
But it is possible to create a strategic plan with plenty of practical value for guiding an organization forward. A good plan will take into account feedback from key stakeholders, will set measurable goals, and will provide boundaries to keep the organization focused. A good plan can be a comfort to organizational leaders as the winds of change blow and shift. As Mary Shelley stated, “Nothing contributes so much to tranquilize the mind as a steady purpose--a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye.”
How to Productively Pursue Strategic Planning
Each organization, whether for-profit or nonprofit, tends to have its own approach to strategic planning. There are many considerations that affect the approach selected, such as where in the organizational lifecycle a group happens to be (e.g., startup vs. mature or all-volunteer vs. staffed), what the budget is for planning, and whether there are big challenges or new opportunities facing the organization. Another significant consideration is the level of satisfaction with the current plan (assuming there is a plan) and whether the board and staff feel change is needed. Another factor, which tends to play a larger role than it should, is the amount of time board members are willing to devote to the planning process. Some people discount or dismiss the value of planning.
One should resist a cookie-cutter approach to strategic planning. If the executive team of a particular organization has a preferred framework in mind for the planning process, an organizational consultant should be able to work within that framework under most circumstances. On the other hand, if a group is unsure of how best to proceed and is looking for guidance with the process, a good consultant will provide recommended steps. Planning consultants tend to have a preferred approach of their own, and some rigidly insist on following particular steps. In any case, the outside consultant needs to talk to board and/or staff representatives to get a feel for the situation and review any existing strategic plan.
Some organizations create an ad hoc strategic planning committee to review the existing plan and make recommendations for the new plan. Other times, the executive committee of the board will take charge of the planning process. In other organizations, the executive director/CEO or board president will lead the way.
A big consideration for the planning process is whether the organization will convene a board retreat, perhaps for an evening or part or all of a weekend. At a retreat, the group can conduct a S.W.O.T. analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) and discuss the big picture—strategic issues that may get ignored during regular board meetings.
An important step of planning is to gather input from key stakeholders. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, including conducting a survey of stakeholders, perhaps using an online tool like SurveyMonkey. In addition, a group can convene focus groups with perhaps eight to twelve people in each to engage in a dialogue and dig deeper into the perceptions about the organization.
Recognize that even the best plans must be reevaluated over time. The 19th Century German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke pointed out that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” Charles de Gaulle said, “You have to be fast on your feet and adaptive or else strategy is useless.”
Don’t be afraid to reach high and take chances with your strategic plan. As Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, said, “In a world that’s changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.”
The value of strategic planning goes far beyond merely creating a written plan. It’s an opportunity for the organization’s leaders to step back from the day-to-day grind, contemplate where the organization has been, and think broadly and creatively about opportunities for the future.
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Tim Jacobson, CEO of Visjonær Consulting, has served as a board member and executive of a variety of nonprofit and for-profit organizations over the past two decades. He's author of the book Explosive Marketing for Nonprofits: Trajectory for Success, to be released in 2014, the executive producer of a documentary film, Mysteries of the Driftless, broadcast on PBS, and author of Amazon best-selling thriller The Kurchatov Penetration. He has been featured dozens of times by TV and radio stations, magazines and newspapers for his organizational consulting, filmmaking, writing, conservation and legal work and for his exploration of international justice and peace issues.
This article is copyright (c) 2014, Timothy S. Jacobson. All rights reserved.