Why Most Strategic Planning Fails (and 5 ways to make sure yours doesn’t)


Your nonprofit is ready to embark on a strategic planning process, and energies are high. Everyone is excited to come together, think creatively about how your organization can be even better, and forge a new, ambitious path forward! And next thing you know … the planning process is coming to an end and, while you’ve got a shiny new strategic plan, in reality very little changes. Maybe you can still sense an underlying disagreement about an issue that you supposedly resolved during strategic planning. Or, perhaps you’re already lagging behind on one of your new, bold goals. And where there was once hope and excitement, you may now be feeling disappointed and discouraged.

Sound familiar?

If you answered yes, believe me, you are not alone. I hate to admit this sad truth, but most strategic planning efforts fail. The reason? Because strategic planning is about much more than planning – it is an organizational change initiative, and organizational change is hard. Get this - according to McKinsey & Company, 70% of organizational change efforts fail. 70%! Those are some pretty daunting odds.

So, what can you do to make sure your next strategic planning process falls into the roughly 30% of those that succeed? The first, critical step is recognizing that strategic planning is an organizational change initiative. Frame it that way when talking with your staff and board about the work. Let everyone know that, yes, it will be challenging work, and that it’s going to take a lot of commitment, energy, and time from the team to make the project a success. And then, together, follow these 5 key steps:

1. Assemble a superstar Strategic Planning Committee

When you first start strategic planning, you’ll want to compile a Strategic Planning Committee to lead the effort. Recognizing that strategic planning = organizational change, this team should be assigned with not only developing the strategic plan (for approval by the board), but also then serving as the change leaders who will drive the new initiatives called for within your plan.

In order to put together a Strategic Planning Committee with enough power to lead the change effort, make sure the group as a whole represents:

  • Position Power: A majority of the members of your staff and board leadership teams should be represented on the Committee.
  • Organizational Diversity: All relevant skills, experience, and perspectives should be represented so that informed, smart decisions can be made. Gather folks from different departments and levels, and look for a diversity of personalities and approaches.
  • Enthusiasm and Energy: Recruit people who are the most passionate and excited about the future of your nonprofit. Avoid naysayers and individuals who tend to put their own interests above those of the group.
  • Credibility: The group should be seen and respected by those in the organization so that the group’s decisions will be taken seriously by others.

2. Don’t gloss over visioning

When I mention the word visioning to groups, I usually catch a few eye rolls or “subtle” glances down at the time. While some may get excited about visioning, many see it as a non-essential activity, and would rather focus on more concrete, action-oriented tasks.

Do not fall into this trap!

Creating alignment around vision is an absolutely critical first step in strategic planning and the foundation of a healthy organization. So, take your time with visioning! (I recommend that my clients dedicate, at the very least, a half-day of the committee’s time to this work.) Find a fun and creative way to engage and guide the group in activities that paint a clear, inspiring picture of the future your nonprofit is working towards. After you’ve completed your visioning session, if you still sense a lack of alignment (this happens often!), surface the disagreements that still exist, and take the time needed to build consensus around your vision. Skipping these important steps are like trying to build a house on a shaky foundation.

3. Identify your key change initiatives

Naturally, your strategic plan will call for you to continue with some business as usual, and it will also challenge you to shake some things up. This may involve launching a new program, engaging in a new partnership, or overhauling the way one (or more) of your departments operate.

Be intentional about identifying each of the major change initiatives that you’ll be undertaking, and treat each as a dedicated project. For each of these change projects:

  • Assign a project lead who has the enthusiasm, influence, and ability to create and sustain the change. This person will be responsible for sharing a compelling vision for the change, organizing internal resources to support the change, and working through the likely resistance the project will face.
  • Assemble a diverse and committed project team who will support the project lead in making the change successful. You will want to recruit folks from different departments and levels within the organization, so that they can spread the change throughout the organization.
  • Develop a project plan and timeline, and be prepared to stray from it. Yes, a project plan is essential for getting and keeping everyone marching in the same direction, and yes, it will all change once you get started. So, make the plan a live, breathing document that shifts as needed.
  • And, finally ...

4. Take a systems approach

The primary reason that change initiatives fail is because most organizations don’t approach change from a systems perspective. Instead, we tend to only focus our efforts on the one part of the system we’re trying to change. For example, let’s say your strategic plan calls for you to create an improved performance management system. Naturally you likely think to tackle the change by implementing a new structure, process, and requirements for employee performance reviews. The problem with this approach is that employee performance is linked to so many other dimensions of the organization, such as motivation and rewards, relationships, work climate, and culture, and if these interrelated elements are left unattended, the change effort will likely fail.

So, for each change laid out in your strategic plan, ask yourself:

  • What needs to shift in people’s beliefs, thoughts, perceptions, and interpersonal relationships to support this change?
  • What actions, behaviors, and habits do people in the organization need to change, start, or stop to support this change?
  • What organizational structures, systems, and processes need to change or be created to support the change?

5. Start the change now

Don’t wait until the end of the strategic planning project to start creating the changes you want to create in your organization. Instead, use the strategic planning process itself to begin the change process!

Ask yourself:

  • What quick wins - small or large - can we achieve in the near term?
  • What needs or new initiatives that we’ve identified are so important, that we need to start tackling them now?
  • How can we use our strategic planning meetings to create the team culture and dynamics that will be needed to drive our organization forward?

By starting to implement strategic changes now, you will send the message that you’re taking this new strategic direction seriously (and your plan will not be one of those that sits on a shelf and collects dust), and as a result you will engender commitment from people throughout the organization.

Now, I’d love to hear from you!

What steps have you and your nonprofit taken that resulted in a successful strategic planning process for your organization? Share your tips in the comments section below.

Thanks as always for reading and sharing!