The words “strategic planning” send chills down the spine of most reasonable people. That’s due in part to less than positive experiences in a process that was called “strategic planning. ” Given the option of watching paint dry or engaging a strategic planning process, most would choose the former. Consultants like me share a significant degree of the blame for this reality. Many of us have made an abomination out of a process that reasonably should invigorate, energize, and inspire leadership teams of nonprofit organizations and businesses alike.
The problem, at least in part is that strategic planning has been marketed as an event. You have an offsite kumbaya gathering of the executive leadership to do strategic planning. You meet for a day or perhaps two and at the end of it you emerge with an extensive work of art called a “strategic plan. ” Most often it promptly gets forgotten and there is little if any follow through on the conversations, decisions and identified priorities that emerged out of the exercise. Some consultant walks away with a handsome fee, and a group of executive leaders leave naively thinking they’ve made significant progress only to wake up a month or two down the road completely disillusioned with the entire process vowing “never” to do that again! As a result capable, well-meaning executive leaders abandon a process that if done well, can be the very life blood of the organization, injecting, passion, energy, focus and inspiration into the organizations bloodstream! Why? Because strategic planning has been relegated to an event rather than an ongoing process.
Towards a Solution
The term “strategic planning” is really a misnomer. What if you called it “strategic thinking” instead? Now I know that merely changing the name doesn’t necessarily alter the essence of the process, but I’m suggesting in this case that a subtle adjustment can make a profound difference on both the experience and outcome of the process. The format might look very similar. It might be an offsite event facilitated by an external consultant but the dynamics are very different. The purpose is to think strategically about the organization, to take a look back at where you’ve come from, to evaluate where you are, and to then think strategically about where you need to go as an organization given your past and present realities, and the future you envision.
But strategic thinking doesn’t stop when the event ends. The process I’m proposing, incorporates strategic thinking into the organizational DNA where every decision in every department involves a strategic thinking process. Every challenge is viewed as an opportunity to think strategically about how best to address not just the symptom but the root cause. Every request to add programs or services is first evaluated through the lens of strategic thinking. How does this fit with what we’ve identified as our organizational priorities? Every staff hire is filtered through a rigorous grid of strategic thinking to ensure that the person and the role fits with the overall organization priorities.