The Secret to a Flexible Strategic Plan

No nonprofit leader needs to be convinced of the value of a flexible, agile strategic plan.

Inflexible strategic plans that chart one direct path from point A to point B are a thing of the past.  The world just doesn’t work that way.  Things change.  Donors deliver bad news.  Key people in your organization leave.  Your clients’ needs evolve.

Everyone wants a flexible strategic plan, and yet so many nonprofits continue to churn out the traditional plan that charts one direct path from point A to point B.  It’s like going to the salon for a pixie cut and walking out with a perm.  What’s up with that?

It’s all about shifting your mindset

You’re willing, ready, and even excited about ditching your traditional strategic plan for a plan that will flex and grow with your organization.  Motivation and desire are a great start, but they’re not enough.

Because below the surface, you hold a set of beliefs that might be holding you and your organization back from creating the flexible strategic plan that you really desire.

It may be time for a mindset shift…

Mindset shift #1: 

Old mindset:  strategic planning is an every three year process.

New mindset: strategic planning is a continuous process.

The belief that strategic planning is an organizational process that occurs every few years is widespread and deep-rooted.  Read any best practice non-profit book, article, or survey and there it is – “your organization must conduct a formal strategic planning process every three years.”

Don’t get me wrong, I whole-heartedly believe that organizations should conduct a thorough strategic planning process every few years.  AND, that formal planning exercise is only one part of a continuous strategic planning process.

Under the old mindset, your organization conducts strategic planning, implements the plan for three years, and then returns to the strategic planning process at the end of the three years.  It’s a two step process.

Under the new mindset, your organization conducts strategic planning, begins to execute strategies, measures and tracks results, learns from those results, makes new strategic decisions … continues to execute strategies, measures and tracks results, learns from those results, makes new strategic decisions … repeat.  It’s an iterative, ongoing process.

Leading from this mindset requires you to think and act strategically all the time –  and to encourage the same from  your staff and board.  Make time for strategic conversations at every board meeting and leadership team meeting; stop by a colleague’s office and talk strategically, and honestly, about how a particular project is going; and give yourself the space and time to get away from the day-to-day and to think strategically about what needs to happen next in your organization.

Mindset shift #2: 

Old mindset: Not hitting goals = failure.

New mindset: Not hitting goals = learning.

When your strategic plan lays out a direct path from A to B, anything that takes you off course feels like a failure.  “Our plan set us up to reach 1,000 new clients by next month, and we’re only at 500, so it looks like we’re heading for failure.”  It’s logical, it makes sense, and there may even be some truth in that statement.  But, embracing a flexible strategy requires you to look at things differently.

When your strategic plan recognizes that there is no direct path, anything that takes you “off course” – every setback or detour – is an opportunity to learn.  This doesn’t mean that you let go of goals entirely.  From this mindset, you are as focused as ever on your vision, you just recognize that the path there is winding.

So, at every step along the way, you must measure your results.  And you must use these results to learn the truth about the parts of your strategy that are working, and which components are never going to lead you to realizing your vision.  You make constant adjustments as you learn, so that you get back on the path that will lead to your vision.

Leading from this mindset requires that you create conditions that encourage your employees to be ok with “failure.”  Imagine an employee comes to you upon learning that a new initiative is not producing the results everyone expected.  From a “not hitting goals = failure” standpoint, you would probably start to ask a bunch of questions to uncover what’s going wrong.  From a “not hitting goals = learning” perspective, you may instead ask:

  • What do our results tell us?
  • What are we learning about assumptions that we made during goal setting that haven’t proven to be true?
  • What do we want to revise?
  • How will we know if this revision has been successful?

Now, I’d love to hear from you!

Have you had success creating a flexible strategic plan at your organization?  What mindset shift would you add to the list?

Thanks, as always, for reading and contributing!
Jen xo