We’ve all been there — you just finished the greatest strategic plan ever. You and your team invested your time and heart into crafting it. Your organization even brought in a consultant and did a big event to announce it. But then fast-forward two years later, and here you are: the plan still sits on the shelf, seemingly taunting you for your hard work and effort never realized because no one ever uses it or takes it off that shelf.I’ve seen this more times than I care to admit, across every sector.
Whatever you do, don’t give up on planning. Yes, I’m a bit of a planning zealot and I'm biased- with a graduate degree in urban planning, I’ve spent much of the last 23 years planning in the nonprofit, for profit, and government worlds.
Planning can be incredibly powerful — if done right. And most importantly, if you avoid the most common mistakes that lead to plan failure. There aren’t a lot. Over my years, I have discovered five mistakes that are the most prevalent ... and which are all preventable:
1. You didn’t understand your ecosystem — It never ceases to amaze me how many nonprofits do their planning based solely on their own data: the assumptions they believe, metrics from current clients, what they feel funders want, and current programming and wait lists.
Don’t get me wrong; this data is all important. But you’re not an island — you need to be very clear on what everyone around you is doing. This means not only those whom you already work and partner with, but also those whom you may want to partner with in the future and even those who might be competing with you for resources. I think understanding the landscape proves so crucial that if you invest money in only one part of the planning process — this is it.
2. You didn’t plan around your business model — For the past few years when we do strategic planning, we focus almost entirely on articulating both your current business model and the one you want to get to in the future. A business model is the most critical element of any plan since it represents how you will generate value for customers and consumers that will attract the resources you need to sustain your efforts.
I know when we talk about business models, people often scratch their head at first, not quite understanding it — so take a look at my blog explaining what a business model is. The Mighty Blog also has a great article about the difference between customers and consumers, an important distinction to nonprofit organizations in particular.
At the most basic level, a business model forces you to integrate everything you do so that fundraising, operations, and programs are all seen as part of the same concept, not as competing interests. It also forces you to edit down what you commit to doing. Many times, a “bold” but misguided strategic plan is one that tries to be everything to everyone, and being a mile-wide and an inch-deep, it leads to a lot of inaction as you ask, “What should we do first?” or “Which of the many strategies do we invest our limited resources in? Maybe a little bit in all of them?” The sound business model forces a connection between resources and value generation that naturally constrains and focuses your thinking. It allows you to be bold but also grounded.
When it comes to planning, I found over the years that the first six to nine months of implementation prove the most crucial. These are the moments when an organization can institutionalize the use of its new plan, see the fruits of its labor and some early wins, and gain traction into the future. Accordingly, I strongly recommend that every plan includes a first-six-to-nine-months action plan so people know how to get started the day after it’s published without missing a beat. In the very least, include each activity to initially undertake; who is ultimately responsible for it; and its expected completion date. Resist the temptation to have multiple leads — the nonprofit world is wonderfully inclusive, but effective implementation relies on accountability.4. Your plan is poorly communicated — Speaking of implementation, a crucial element of your plan’s success is how well you communicate it. Your team, and often external partners as well, need to understand and be able to draw a line around the direction you’re headed. If they don’t get it, how can they support it?
This doesn’t mean you necessarily publish your entire plan in total; you may want to have edited versions to help communicate it most effectively to specific audiences and also to retain information internally as needed within your organization. I strongly recommend having at least two communication events initially — one internal and one external. If you’ve used an inclusive process to create your original strategic plan, then a number of people (both within and outside your organization) will already be familiar with your plan and become evangelists on your behalf. Regardless, after these initial events you should have some regular, proceduralized way of using your plan to help institutionalize it, particularly among your leadership team who is making critical decisions based on it. As a baseline, I recommend that the leadership team make a commitment to pulling out the plan for any major decision or at the start of undertaking a new project and to check in on progress at least quarterly. This will help keep the plan fresh in everyone’s mind and get it off that shelf!5. Your plan doesn’t account for emergent strategy — One of my more dramatic moments happened decades ago as an elementary school student when I found out on a class trip that the Empire State Building swayed in the wind. To my eight-year-old mind, that seems like a very bad idea. Now I understand why they do: things that are inflexible often break.
Being flexible proves key, and you need to be the same with your plan. The day after your plan is published, the world is going to change — there’s no stopping it. The question is, do you ignore change or react to it as an opportunity? This is where emergent strategy comes in. Most of you are probably quite familiar with only one part of the strategy spectrum: planned strategy. This strategy component accounts for all those objectives, goals, and parameters you worked so hard to include in your strategic plan. Yet, this kind of strategy is only one of many. Of the many different types of strategies you perhaps never learn about, the most important is emergent strategy, the one you develop on the fly in reaction to the changing world around you. Bad emergent strategy is total improvisation (which probably many of you were doing). In contrast, effective emergent strategy has some grounding and rules to guide your decision-making. These will not only make your effort to navigate emergent strategy easier in the moment, it will also help you communicate your decisions to your board and staff in a context familiar to them. Accordingly, I strongly recommend having some guidelines around emergent strategy included in any plans. Not sure how to start on developing an emergent strategy? Check out our resource on emergent strategy including exercises to help your organization identify and navigate challenges and opportunities.
If you have any questions, comments or would like to further discuss how to avoid these five issues please reach out to me. I’m always happy to have a free conversation to advance your organization.