In my training I teach people how to reframe their questions. Let's give it a shot with Strategic Planning for nonprofits.

So here it goes. Someone lately began a rhetorical question:

"Was strategic planning still in? Or Out?"

It was concluded that strategic planning was the key to achieving big goals, but nonprofits were known to have limited time, resources, knowledge, and support to do it successfully.

Not only was buy-in and consensus needed, but also a process for execution and management.

Were there other alternatives to traditional strategic planning processes?

Hold on to that question.

Shift camera focus to another discussion—

"Does strategic planning for nonprofit organizations really work?"

Link is here. This is a great article and a question that hits closer to home for a lot of us. After all, strategic planning is a universal tradition, but there were accepted limits to the tradition because for one there's a lack of empirical data regards the effectiveness between formal planning and actual performance.

Hold on to that question, too.

Shift focus again—

Someone presents a test scenario: A 3-5 year strategic plan is finally completed

But then they ask how might the plan be placed in front of the board's and management's thinking at all times given that other problems, crises, and opportunities were sure to arise in the future?

Dunno about you, but this spells out the cliched "world of rapid change" thing we're so familiar with. Everyone will want to build a nonprofit culture that can:

  • think strategically
  • act fast
  • innovate
  • collaborate
  • be creative
  • be adaptive
  • that can execute, learn, reiterate etc.

— to accomplish their goals. And they might even be a part of one's strategic plan.

But can they really?

The karmic wheel spinning continues. What I continue to see is the acknowledgement that "yeah, it's crazy out there. We need to be ready!"

But there's an uneven emphasis between the plan and the capability. More weight is given to planning rather than if the organization is trained to actually perform and carry it out consistently. This needs to be reversed.

While each of those questions deserves a thorough post, here are my answers in short:

Is strategic planning in or out?

It'll always be in, but by itself it is not enough.

Does strategic planning really work?

Only if the nonprofit co-created the plan, understands it, actually has ownership of it, and has the skills, mindsets etc to carry it out consistently and reiterate. Again, a plan alone is not enough.

How do you keep it at the forefront of everyone's thinking?

Here's where I stand: Plans are never dead. Indeed, it's about process, in fact all processes are collaborative, but let me update with some additional thoughts because it's easy to say:

They failed to execute. They failed to implement it. Blah blah blah.

It's true, but you gotta dig more deeper than that.

1. Be aware of everyday capability

I define capability as the competency to do something reliably, consistently, and with discipline.

With that said, be aware of the difference between what you're able to do once a retreat, and what you're able to do every day, or at least through monthly intervals when bottlenecks do happen (and they will happen).

Are you able to learn along the way? Change your mind and correct course along the way?

Think strategic everyday co-creation rather than annual.

2. Behavior change requires habit changes.

And habit changes requires the right environment for progress.

Typical answers usually come off like: "Keep the plan updated; manage it well over time; help people stay focused on the plan. When changes happen, you change the plan. The plan is a living adaptive document."

But people drive plans. So emphasize behavior, not the plan. How are people learning and doing along the way?

How are people gaining new knowledge, out in the real world, then putting that knowledge to use within their organization?

If part of the strategic plan says "we must create a culture that's innovative, creative, entrepreneurial, collaborative" but the environment is completely toxic and anathema to those things, how valuable do you think the plan really is?

It's like the gym. On New Years Day, someone vows — made a personal strategic plan — to exercise regularly and clean up their eating habits.

Well, the honeymoon period subsides, and the energy dies down. That person, despite the plan, realizes that habit changes are really tough lifestyle changes, and that there is a lot of de-conditioning and re-conditioning to do.

But they're constantly surrounded by friends, family, and colleagues with sub-par habits and crappy mental and emotional support systems.

Want to be more creative, adaptive, entrepreneurial? Then know that this isn't just a bunch of values you switch on during one day, and switch off on another. They're habits, beliefs regularly practiced, and practiced deliberately in real-world situations.

If your culture and environment is anti-creative, anti-collaborative, then no strategic plan will help unless something in the plan will explicitly address behavior change.

3. Reframe the debate

A while back I was pleased to see someone mention two prominent SSIR articles: The Strategic Plan is Dead, Long Live Strategy and the more recent May 2015 Strategy Needs a Plan. I want to add my edited response here:

I'm inclined to support the first article by O'Donovan and Flower that the plan is "dead." But then again, the plan isn't really dead. OTOH, the 2nd one written by Michael Alison's article "Strategy Needs a Plan" is a sensible rebuttal, but I'd love to see a part 2.

Some power keywords and phrases highlighted in Alison's article that we're all too familiar with: Adaptive exploration, improve organization performance, execution, adapt to changing conditions, visionaries, entrepreneurial, ongoing exploration, emergent challenges/ops, invention.

It goes on. Both essays make great points and it's interesting to see the scuffle hinge between having a strategic plan, or not having one.

But there are alternate options that run parallel to the either/or strategic planning debate. And this is going to inform other changemakers that there are other ways to reframe/reshape this conversation.

Alison cites John Kotter, a business leadership thought leader, and Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, Emeritus, at the Harvard Business School.

But Kotter had some hidden wisdom elsewhere which spills some sweet irony onto the whole strategic planning debate.

I dug this up a while back in a May 2005 Fast Company article titled "Change or Die", apparently attributed to John Kotter:

"The central issue is never strategy, structure, culture, or systems. The core of the matter is always about changing the behavior of people.

Mindsets and behaviors will drive the outcome of the strategic plan.

But I want to add re-train, re-config, re-tool, re-skill, re-experience for behavior change.

So if the epicenter is human behavior then we need to ask what those behaviors actually entail so people can better collaborate, form teams to co-create strategy, implement it etc.

Ending Thoughts

I hate platitudes if there's nothing practical suggested that will back it up, so I just want to make it clear that "changing behavior" is not something I mean lightly. I'm serious.

Before contemporary design thinking and lean startup principles, a lot was happening in the mid-to-late 20th century to help leaders reconfigure from the ground up, including retooling and reskilling to grapple with complexity within and outside the organization so that they can continuously learn and do, rinse and repeat, no matter how dire and confusing their circumstances got.

Many researchers and pioneers in the field of Organizational Behavior, Cognitive Psychology, and Applied Creativity — even before John Kotter, Roger Martin, Peter Drucker, et al — have already signaled that changing behavior was the key.

This is ongoing. There is an abundance of literature and empirical research suggesting that you had to get really surgical about how the organization thinks and collaborates on a daily basis.

Strategic planning was not the central activity for achieving this kind of transformative change, especially if the end goals were explicitly 1. adaptability and 2. innovation capability.

When you start exploring more literature and empirical research around those two things, you'll realize — as I and others have — that we were asking the wrong questions all along.

We need to stop defaulting to strategic planning as the lens to solve problems of capability.

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