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Strategic Planning: Building a Better Roadmap

Recently, I met with a colleague who asked “are strategic plans really important?”  

I confess that I hesitated before answering.  Of course, a strategic plan that is well-done and well-executed can make all the difference in achieving terrific results.  At the same time, I am equally a skeptic when it comes to strategic planning; after all, I had spent some quality commuting time earlier in my career taking in Henry Mintzberg’s “The The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning,” a book that stirred much controversy in corporate and nonprofit America in the early 1990s We get quite caught up in the process and never really get around to focusing on the vision and ultimately the results, Mintzberg argues. By his way of thinking, the process of strategic planning gets in the way of strategic thought and “tricks” managers that planning will automatically improve organizational performance.  We invested the time and energy on planning; ergo, we are strategic.

So, how can we make the planning process more fruitful?  Where does it go wrong? How do we move from just strategic planning to strategic action?  Here are some ideas:

  • Strategic planning should look at a forward timeframe of no more than three years. In our “new normal” change occurs at a more and more rapid pace. Projecting future growth and changes in an organization’s mission/service landscape beyond 36 months is very difficult at best.
  • Strategic planning requires objective information and data. One of the places where planning can “go off the tracks” is asking the planning team to identify the important data points as part of the process.  At best, you get good guesstimates about information.  At worst, you end up taking in hearsay and opinions.  The practical remedy?  A “briefing book” which includes baseline information required by participants to answer key questions in the process. This information can include organization financials, internal performance metrics, historical background, information on competitor organizations, baseline data on issues/topics of concern. 
  • Strategic planning should address very specific questions of concern to the organization, rather than generic questions. Instead of asking “what are our weaknesses” you might ask “what internal systems and structures do not perform well enough to allow us to help clients meet our benchmarks?” 
  • Strategic planning never ends. Once the planning is completed, an oversight team (perhaps even the same team that created the plan) should periodically (annually or semi-annually) review progress on the plan and update or expand it.  This team needs to be well-versed in environmental changes, emerging trends and practices.  So, that briefing book gets edited, updated and shared.  It never really goes out of style or is consigned to life as a dust-collector or doorstop.

To be sure, there are more and better tenets for more effective planning. The important thing is to not avoid creating the plan itself. In a rapidly changing landscape where competition for philanthropic support becomes keener, a good roadmap can always come in handy.

Learn about Henry Mintzberg’s 5 Ps of Strategy here: