I wish I could count the number of times I have attended a non-profit strategic planning session, or discussed the need to have (or update) one in a board meeting, or been invited to serve as the facilitator. It has always – always – struck me that the strategic planning session should just be starting about the time that it is actually ending (e.g., too much time is wasted at the beginning and then a frenzy results at the end). The purpose of this article is to outline some observations over 30 years of strategic planning experience and to share suggestions that will improve the chances for a successful outcome.
Holding a Strategic Planning Session
At some point in time, every member of a non-profit board is going to hear the suggestion: “let’s hold a strategic planning session!” from a fellow board member or staff member. It’s not a bad idea but, unfortunately, it’s often a waste of time and produces no measurable outcomes. I want to share some observations and thoughts about strategic planning – invite debate – and see if we can come up with some guidelines that make the investment of time worthwhile. I have often said that strategic planning is a ‘process’ and not an ‘event’ – and I still very much believe that statement is true. However, maybe I should also add the caveat that a successful ‘process’ does indeed require an ‘event’ – or series of events – which is precisely the point. If you agree with my belief that the event often ends about the time it should be starting, then you would have to agree that additional follow-up after the event is required in order to create a meaningful strategic plan because the plan stopped short of completion during the original event. And a lot of time was used inefficiently, which also makes people reluctant to participate in the future.
A Working Document
Without a doubt, the primary way that I judge a successful strategic plan is by seeing a copy of it a year after the ‘event.’ If it’s a bit too dusty (which is often said in jest, but is true!) and if the pages are in pristine condition, then the event that created the plan was obviously not successful in motivating action. However, if the copy is dog-eared, marked up, added to, pages tagged, and otherwise well-used; then the event was super successful because a ‘process’ was indeed born and the need for ongoing action was instilled. In my opinion, successful outcomes are too rare in the strategic planning ‘implementation’ phase. The copy of the strategic plan that I described as a success is one that has become a working document, which is what planning is all about.
From an analytical standpoint, one way to define something is to determine what it is not. Strategy is different from ‘tactical’ or ‘operational’ (which is actually performing a task). Strategy is more subjective and cerebral; it involves thinking about an issue in broader terms than usual; thinking about circumstances that do not currently exist (i.e., future oriented) and determining how to adapt the organization to benefit from those predicted opportunities or avoid anticipated threats. Often, it involves thinking about an issue totally differently than ever before (which is VERY hard to do). Strategy development is not the same as operations implementation. For example, when I have been invited to ‘do’ strategic planning for an organization, I always ask if there is an Operating Plan; i.e., if you don’t know how to perform your core business every day (Operating Plan), why would you want to spend time working on a future-oriented process (Strategic Plan)? Strategy (highly subjective) is the opposite of operational (highly objective/defined/specific). Objective is ‘cut and dried’ – there is a procedure/process/outcome that arises from certain actions, done at certain times, in a certain way to produce known/certain outcomes. We already know if we do these certain things what we will get. Most people can adequately perform what they are taught/instructed. However, developing strategy – even the process of thinking about it – is very different. A strategic planning session led by a ‘doer’ instead of a ‘strategist’ and ‘critical thinker’ will yield disappointing results; however, ‘doers’ can be very helpful in participating in the development of strategy if they are properly guided. A couple of very simple examples of strategic vs. operational issues will make the point:
Operational – How are we going to make payroll next month?
Strategic – How do we need to adapt our operations to comply/excel with the recent changes for non-profits by Congress?
Operational – We need to add a new program to our existing series.
Strategic – We need to add a new series to cover new topics that will take our organization in a new direction.
Operating Plans Are Important
Let me be quick to tout the benefits of an Operating Plan. Properly executed, an Operating Planning Session can provide or refine specific guidance/clarification/policy on any number of day-to-day issues that really can be a big help when running the organization. The primary difference between strategic and operating (which is a huge difference) is that operating plans deal with the ‘here and now’ – with processes and policies that will improve the current business function – strategic plans, simply put, engage the participants in thought processes meant to challenge the current business function by looking into the future and assessing opportunities, threats, weaknesses, and strengths. A good Operating Plan can minimize daily confusion/questions about the manner in which specific job functions should be conducted. The ‘event’ of operations planning – getting the appropriate team together to discuss, debate, and decide the issues – is, in-of-itself, a very worthwhile team-building and clarifying session (if properly planned and executed). While Operating Plans are beyond the scope of this article, I wanted to make sure they were mentioned in a positive context.
The Mission Statement and The SWOT Analysis
Unfortunately, most strategic planning sessions seem to begin with either a review of the mission statement or a SWOT analysis. Both are usually ‘deal-busters’ in that they bog down the process of innovative thinking for strategic planning. For example, unless the core business of the organization has been totally disrupted (e.g., by lack of funding or policy, political, social, or technology changes), then the existing mission statement should be in reasonably good condition. To delve into the mission statement – and debate specific words and placement within the text – sucks the life out of the planning session and can often pit individuals against each other right from the start over silly things like wordsmithing. Not only is this unfortunate, but I would suggest that it is totally unnecessary. How can you revise a mission statement until you go through the rigors of the strategic planning process and determine whether or not there are bona-fide strategic issues worth pursuing? My preference is to hold the mission statement for a separate planning meeting after the strategic plan has at least been through an initial rough draft process. Perhaps a good analogy is to look at the mission statement from the back end – maybe it should be thought of as more of an executive summary?