A Strategic Planning To-Be List

I am a total to-do list junkie.  Few things give me as much pleasure as putting a check mark next to an item on my to do list.  Check!

So, I was thrilled when I lead a strategic planning process for the first time, and I found countless books, articles, and worksheets offering a step-by-step process for developing a nonprofit strategic plan.

But, I quickly learned that following a strategic plan to-do list isn’t enough.  You need to be a certain way, and hold certain attitudes and beliefs, in order to develop a great strategic plan for your nonprofit organization.

Are you looking to get more out of your strategic planning process the next time around?

Here is a list of 5 To-Bes that will lead your organization to a more impactful strategic plan.

1. Imaginative

I believe in kicking off the strategic planning process with big-picture, lofty, untethered dreaming.  Get your leaders together and take them on a journey into the future.  Ask them to imagine what it would look like if your organization achieved its vision.  If all of the things you have been working for have to come to pass, what would be the impact in the world?

This type of visioning exercise gives you permission to let go of limiting beliefs about real and perceived obstacles for your organization.  It will raise the level of energy, creativity, and excitement among your team that will carry throughout the strategic planning process.  There will be plenty of grounding opportunities later in the strategic planning process, but rather than starting from a place of limitations, start with what’s possible.

2. Inclusive

It’s important to involve all important stakeholders – internal and external – in your strategic planning process.  That means all of your board and staff members and a selection of clients, donors, and partners should have a voice at some point in the process.  If this sounds like it could get unwieldy, believe me, it can.  Consider using surveys to solicit the input of external stakeholders, and if you have a large staff, you may want to establish a strategic planning team that equally represents different departments and levels of management within your organization.

Being inclusive means that you not only invite more people to participate in the strategic planning process (that’s the to-do), but you are truly welcoming of all voices, including the dissenters.  If your meetings continue to be dominated by the same powerful voices, encourage the quieter or less popular participants to chime in.  If there are certain individuals or groups within your organization that will not feel safe speaking up in a meeting, provide them with a safer way to contribute.  Speak with them one-on-one or give them an anonymous survey to complete.  Being inclusive means that you trust that different perspectives will add unique value to the strategic planning process, and you are committed to having those voices heard.

 3. Experimental

Long gone are the days of rigid, five-year strategic plans.  We are operating in such a rapidly changing environment, that organizations need to develop flexible, adaptive strategic plans that allow them to redirect their activities in response to change.

To develop and follow adaptive plans, all members of the organization must be encouraged to be experimental.   An adaptive strategic plan gives you a common vision for the future, and some initial ideas (hypotheses) for how you might achieve the desired state.  When you begin to implement the plan, you are conducting experiments to determine whether your hypotheses are true.  You are constantly collecting data to learn whether you’re on track or you need to redirect.  This iterative process allows the organization to focus on what strategies are producing results, and learn valuable lessons from what’s not working.  And being experimental only works if you are …

 4. Unattached

You work so hard during the strategic planning process that it’s natural to be proud of the outcome.   It’s also easy to get attached to the plan – and this is where it gets sticky.  So many organizations continue to pursue a strategy that is not producing results, because they are attached to their ideas.  And you know how Einstein defined insanity … “doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.”

Tweaking an unsuccessful foundation funding proposal and expecting it to get funded, because you are positive that foundation is a perfect match… Relaunching your low-participation adult literacy program at 5 different community centers, because you just haven’t found the right audience for it yet …

The sooner you can let go of your attachment to ideas, the sooner you can start to experiment with new strategies that have a better chance at success.

5. Strategic

I might sound like Captain Obvious here, but in order for your strategic plan to succeed, you must be strategic.  Every day.  I often hear nonprofit leaders say that they don’t have time to work on the “strategic stuff” in their organization, because they are so overwhelmed by day-to-day demands.  Being strategic doesn’t mean that you’re working on a set of high-level organizational tasks, but rather that you apply a strategic lens to everything that you do.

When you are writing an email to your board, think strategically about what they need to know and what you’re asking them to do.  When you are holding a team meeting, present strategic data that sparks a conversation about performance and organizational learning.  When you are considering a large organizational expense, strategically analyze it from different perspectives before making a decision.

Now, I’d love to hear from YOU! 

I know you’ve been involved in a strategic planning project or two.  What attitudes or ways of being have you learned are critical to developing and implementing a successful strategic plan?   What to-bes would you add to the list?

Thanks, and have a lovely weekend!

Best,
Jen