If there was one cause 21st century changemakers must stand for, it's bullshit-free strategy.

In a recent discussion, someone had asked about the tools and methodologies used to create a strategic plan. Anyway, I always find these strategic planning discussions a little startling. It's usually really easy to categorize the typical responses that pile in:

  • SWOTs
  • More SWOTs
  • Online tools and software (For real!?)

Suspicious yet? Other mnemonic frameworks like PESTLE, STEEPLE, and GROW were mentioned, but whatever scans are done, scan should be an active verb. All day, everyday.

Done away from the office, of course.

Design-oriented, lean-acquainted practitioners would be baffled by the over-recommendation of SWOTS. Additionally, what about:

  1. Process? What's really being done before and after the tool is being used?
  2. Exploration? Insight generation? How are they "scanning" the environment?
  3. What data and facts? What data and information are they using? How was it collected and how are they making sense of it and coming to their conclusions?

If there was one catch-all question you could run every strategic plan through, it's this:

"What information is being assumed?"

People at the drawing board need to ask it. Run this check through all facts, figures, statements, and declarations that seem off or lukewarm.

In the 21st century, nonprofit strategic plans must be free of bullshit. Because you just can't afford it. If the plan funnels resources on the wrong challenges for the next few years, it'll all just be a form of waste.

What qualifies as bullshit?

This post is meant for senior leaders who were intent on getting the help they needed in becoming more of a 21st century problem-solving organization (changemaker, nonprofit, et al.), but who were left frustrated by the final result. I feel you.

If the strategic planning consultant had left you with SWOT charts and little in-the-field exploration, this is for you.

I'm a fan of statement starters like "How might we" and "In what ways might," but let's use a different one to invite exploration:

"You know it's bullshit when..."

So, with that said.

"You know it's bullshit when..."

1. The final plan runs on hunches and guesses.

Supposing is good. Finding out is better.

– Mark Twain

You know it's bullshit when there's very little exploration of the facts outside of the office.

  • How do your operations and systems perform in its real environment and settings?
  • How do your programs and services really perform in the field? What's working; Isn't working?

When it comes to designing for context, a favorite nonprofit to cite is D-Rev, a nonprofit product development company. CEO Krista Donaldson, Ph. D, says that exploring context is crucial, that is, the real settings and circumstances in which a product or service will be used:

  • What current offerings are available right now?
  • How is it being used and what are the results?
  • What needs still aren't being met? And why?

There's more to it. Here's a good TEDx Talk that explains context more succinctly:

2. Strategy was confused with planning.

You know it's bullshit when strategy is confused with planning.

I've always made a point about going lean in nonprofit strategic plan, to make room for pivoting, reiterating, and making small bets.

But we can't leave out ...

Roger Martin, Academic Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management (and author of "Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works), says that strategy shouldn't be confused with planning.

Strategy is a set of choices. Nonprofits might have a mission, but they also need to understand the choices that will get them there.

Understanding context and verifying assumptions is a part of informing those strategic choices.

It would also help to be a bit of a systems thinker: Knowing how to navigate marketplaces; knowing how to spot new patterns and understand emerging trends; Knowing how to make sense of other unseen influences and opportunities in the world. And knowing what that means for your nonprofit's strategic choices.

I just hope the bulk of this sensemaking wasn't done with just SWOT charts.

3. The final plan has nothing new to say

You know it's bullshit when the new nonprofit strategic plan really has nothing new to say.

No new insights, just rewritten jibba-jabba from last time.

Barbara Kibbe, founder of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, writes in an SSIR piece that strategy is an ubiqutous term (So is innovation). She lays out in five bold beautiful punches what strategy isn't. I'd also add to her list that strategy isn't strategy when:

  • It avoids people and context
  • It avoids researching the facts
  • It avoids testing ideas

If the new strategic plan is found guilty of these listed things, that's when you know: The new plan has nothing interesting to say.

"Ok, what do I do?"

If you've recently undergone a strategic planning process that involved a SWOT, which yielded any kind of tome or strategic planning artifact, then I recommend a few extra steps:

1. Seek information gaps.

For every suspiscious item, ask yourself:

  1. What else do I know about this?
  2. What has led me (them/us) to this conclusion?

If you don't know something, then seriously: You don't know. And not knowing is OK. That brings us to...

2. Create an action plan to fill in those information gaps.

If you don't know, ask:

How might I find out?

No "tool" is necessary. Write a list — yes, a list wihtout judging the ideas — of ways you can clarify information gaps.

Divergent thinking isn't just an ideation thing. Checking assumptions and fact-finding are also divergent acts.

The difference between a nonprofit that "does research" versus those who can truly nail divergent fact-finding means doing a few deliberate things:

  • Seek multiple viewpoints from stakeholders
  • Seek any information that might clear up the issues
  • Explore unknown territory while remaining open to any information that might challenge one's beliefs about a situation

That means suspension of judgment comes into play: Whether one agrees or not with the often new and startling information is irrelevant.

3. Plot your nonprofit on a business model canvas.

This can supersede the SWOT chart altogether. This visual communicates all the functioning parts of your nonprofit. Once the canvas is filled, it's easier to bounce ideas from one another about missing information.

You can use this template. If you wanted see what your orgnaization looks like visually, this is the way to do it. For things you don't know, you always want to ask, "how might we go and find out?"

If you're not testing assumptions you might as well call SWOT charts what they really are: G.U.E.S.S.E.S

And finally, why even SWOT?

Most times SWOT charts are just an organized collection of hunches. The idea of landscape scans based on SWOTs alone is dangerous.

Yes, we do care about decrypting strategic riddles and exploring wicked problems.

But the methods and sensemaking tools have expanded since the SWOT's inception in the 1950's. Even SWOT charts are nearly nowhere to be found in the repertoire of 21st-century changemaking practitioners (or just anyone with an aversion to BS).

For one, it's the obvious: If there are information gaps, the SWOT will be an expensive wheel-spinning exercise — a form of waste, unless they've tasked themselves with deeper, immersive research of the environment.

Two, people can lie to themselves about the SWOT categories. This could be from conflicting group dynamics, personal agendas and emotional attachments to pet projects, or the fear of pissing off the wrong (or right?) people in the same room.

And three, SWOTs are just broad and abstract. It's a terrible place to explore unmet needs and the deeper complexity of wicked problems.

Instead, we wonder how well the nonprofit knows the context of their mission.

We wonder what they will do away from the desk and outside of the office.

And once they've tested assumptions, we wonder what will be done exactly with that new information.

I hope this helps. By the way, I know I'm not the only one thinking this. Let me know your thoughts and tips below.

Let's stand united against bullshit-free strategy.

A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.

— John le Carre

Bonus: Tough Love for SWOTS (an insightful and entertaining read)