Mid-summer is a good time to start to reflect on where you are with your strategy; the autumn is usually a busy time for strategic planning, reviews and workshops whether your charity works on a calendar or fiscal year. Strategy seems to come in and out of favour with organisations, teams and individuals and while everyone pretty much signs up to the need for a strategy the level of engagement, inspiration and belief around the process varies greatly dependent on the mood, current performance and level of leadership/ambition in the organisation.
Personally I have tended to fall in and out of love with strategy during my career in the sector but now I believe that we have generally learnt enough in most organisations to transcend the basics and genuinely achieve some inspiring strategies with real relevance and a reference point that can help month to month as people move forward. Too many people still get hung up by the process and detail of strategy and cling onto some of the old favourites in terms of strategy sections and structures. In a fast moving, ever changing, unpredictable, saturated market we need to be more flexible, more creative and more spontaneous about our approach to strategy. This article is not about a new structure for strategy in 2011 and beyond but it is about offering some key observations about strategic planning that may make you take a fresh look and perhaps be brave enough to deviate from the norm or the accepted practices.
Vision: traditionally the lead part of any strategy and often the piece that is crafted last or mid way during the strategy process. Many thousands of hours are wasted every year with managers, directors and trustees locked in rooms (often residential) to craft vision statements that will spearhead all the thinking and activities of an organisation. Yet I would say that if we can lighten up, let our imagination and ambition free we can begin to capture key factors that form a vision; if a crafted statement is needed, which I doubt in most cases, leave this to last and concentrate on content and ambition. Vision is now more important than ever in the not-for profit sector, without it we are failing to paint a picture of a desired future, failing to motivate our stakeholders and failing to deliver leadership which is a core requirement of success in this sector.
In this difficult economic time organisations are beginning to show signs of suppressing ambition, pulling back and being cautious, but these are not the thoughts that are going to break through the current climate and provide success. People in our sector are driven by challenge and the genuine belief that ‘it can be done’, whatever it is!
Another useful tool when crafting the different elements of a vision is to capture all the different things you want to achieve or believe you can achieve; step back and take a realism check given the current market place and economic climate. Then try to divide the elements of your vision into three groups, year one, two and three. Breaking a vision down rather than focusing on achieving a beautifully crafted statement is a much more practical and credible approach. These ‘three lists’ will then form vision horizons, setting markers that can be reached and if each year is carefully reviewed a ‘theme’ will emerge that will highlight the overall ‘thrust’ for the year, e.g. consolidation, transformation, growth, readiness.
Environments: the two most important factors at the start of any good strategy are the external and internal market reviews. Traditionally we have used SWOT and PEST analysis to summarise these, but frankly these are now so predictable, so mundane and tedious that they deserve to be put on the history shelf.
A PEST analysis is simply too limiting, four boxes of meaningless facts that are disempowering and often too large or distant to help really shape our strategic thinking and direction. The focus of our review of the external market needs to be more oriented to relevant trends that can be identified, investigated and implemented. Observing what is happening with our current or potential supporter groups. In the commercial sector companies tracking trends are offering new thoughts and updating facts on a weekly basis, often identifying opportunities of the moment that should be rapidly reviewed strategically, resulting in possible strategy adjustments. For a long time now the commercial sector has put a great emphasis on scenario planning, taking trends, observations and predictions and ‘painting’ pictures of opportunities or challenges that may arise. We need a strategic view of the external environment that is real, realistic, insightful and above all genuinely useful in shaping our thinking and actions.
As an aside, in September 2008 our Government declared we were officially in recession, in February 2010 the Bank of England declared we are officially in recovery and for the record I believe the third ‘r’ that we need to add and act upon is a period of rewrite. The old saying in strategy is that ‘what worked yesterday, will not work tomorrow’, which frankly has never been more true. It is not time to think outside the box and stretch our thinking it is time to genuinely question everything we know about fundraising, marketing, communication, campaigning and programme delivery.
SWOT must be the most popular strategic planning tool of all time, yet it is a confused little tool that offers us the chance to use strengths and weaknesses to reflect on our internal environment and opportunities and threats to reflect on the outside world and factors that are closer to influencing our thinking and operations. For most organisations you can predict the SWOT content even before the one day workshop is convened to engage in the exercise! The results are often very confused as people simply apply the OT to the internal environment with the SW, all very strange. I believe that the internal environment is best assessed through two simple but challenging headings: Bridges and Barriers. What are the bridges we have successfully built that are going to help move us into the future? How will we maintain, strengthen and modernise them within the next strategic period? Barriers, quite simply the factors that we can identify that will block or limit our ability to move forward to achieve our ambitions and vision. Like any barriers in real life we then need, within the strategy, to either accept them as limiters (not a great approach) or to find ways to go over, through or around them. This is more than just a change of terminology this is a challenge to sharpen our thinking and define something meaningful.
Planning periods: usually the title page of our strategy provides the clue as to how far we think we can predict what we should, can and will be doing. When I started in this sector in the early eighties, some charities, like some companies, had twenty year strategic plans. In the nineties this had dropped to ten years; by the late nineties into the noughties t was ten and then five years, but now it is ridiculous to think beyond three years. We must accept the speed of change means that three year blocks of thinking are the only realistic option and even then this should be on the basis of declining detail from one year ahead to three years ahead. Perhaps our programme or service colleagues need to stretch to five years but I challenge them as to the realism of their projections and thoughts.
Process: often assumed or under-estimated in terms of importance. The reality today is that the process is just about more important than the finished strategy. If you end up with a beautifully crafted and presented document that nobody owns or believes in you will simply be ‘ticking a box’ for having a strategy. As a consultant more and more of the strategy development assignments I take on are about facilitating and guiding a strategy through an organisation and engaging all the relevant stakeholders. This takes time, scheduling and commitment but is definitely the heart of any successful strategy development. Developing a blank ‘workbook’ that has the desired strategy structure in it and highlighting what needs to be completed can be a powerful guide, gradually being populated and integrated during an ‘active process’ of presentations, sharing, workshops, brain-storms and informed group discussions/debates. What matters most in strategy is not paper but the heads and hearts of people and what you manage to register in these areas within individuals and teams.
Heart: strategic planning goes through fashions and phases and in the middle of the strategy we often see aims, objects and actions or goals, strategies and actions. But frankly this is all about semantics, it doesn’t matter what terms you use, provided everyone understands what they are about and that they help to break down the proposed actions of a strategy into manageable bite sized chunks that can be measured and monitored. My experience is to keep this section as short, precise and clear as possible; get it right and this is the section that will be referenced on a monthly basis as different plans are rolled out and results/impacts are captured.
A popular challenge approach at the heart of many not-for-profits are BHAGs = Big Hairy Audacious Goals , an old acronym borrowed from the commercial sector and first used in 1996 to help corporate teams establish ‘visionary goals that are more strategic and emotionally compelling’. This works for me and seems to help people reach further both inside themselves and outside in terms of what they think can achieve. Emotionally compelling is the key for me in this sector, ‘what makes people get up in the morning and truly want to go out and make a difference’.
This is not an exhaustive view of strategic planning but a spotlight on new developments in our sector; at last thinking and acting strategically in our sector is becoming a dynamic process and people are constantly engaging to seek new ways to approach this vital work. Henry Mintzburg identified five different definitions of strategy, predictably all beginning with a P, but they help show the diversity of this skill/process:
- Strategy is Plan
- Strategy is a Ploy
- Strategy is a Pattern
- Strategy is a Position
- Strategy is a Perspective.