What makes for a good strategic plan? – Sharon Danosky

How relevant can a strategic plan be in a world where change occurs at such a rapid pace?   Good question.  One I would counter by asking – is there ever a time in history where life has been certain and predictable.  I highly doubt it.  So, what is the role of strategic planning – and how do you determine whether your strategic plan will be a viable document – or gather dust on a shelf?

In a June 2016 article titled, “Strategic Plans are Less Important than Strategic Planning,” written for the Harvard Business Review, Graham Kenny stresses that a strategic plan is not a device for control; rather it is one of guidance.  It is the process, not the end product that really matters.

For that reason, I think a good strategic plan must be fluid, above all else.  It is not a list of tactics or “to do” action steps that need to be taken.

The thing about strategic planning is that it creates cohesion, a unity of purpose.  Your strategies are more like the major themes you will address, rather than the specific actions you are going to take.  Almost every non-profit strategic plan will incorporate several of the following objectives:

  • Improve operational effectiveness
  • Enhance or expand programs or services
  • Strengthen governance
  • Explore and pursue strategic collaborations
  • Develop a staffing plan to meet future organizational needs
  • Achieve or build financial stability
  • Create a strong advocacy stance
  • Build community and stakeholder awareness

There is nothing magic about any of these.  Yet, through the planning process you are able to determine where your greatest vulnerabilities and opportunities are and among the eight objectives, what your primary focus should be for the next 3-5 years (recognizing that focus on all eight at once should never be an option).

The beauty lies in achieving a shared understanding of priorities among board members and staff alike.

Several years ago, a relatively new Executive Director approached me, a bit frustrated.  He told me that he had been the General Manager of a mid-sized manufacturing facility and that it was so much easier to plan and execute actions.  He said there were just a few variables and it was basically contingent on market demand and cash flow.  “Now”, he explained, “At every board meeting, some board member has a new idea, they all like the idea and now I am off exploring yet another new concept.”  While I am sure that was a bit of an exaggeration, I asked whether or not he had a strategic plan.  No, he said he did not.  And therein lies the problem.

If he did have such a plan, then it would have been relatively easy.  Every time a new great idea was presented, he could ask the question of whether – and how – the new idea fits within the strategies you outlined?  That would yield a more strategic discussion, rather than volleying around yet another new idea.

Very often boards have an almost euphoric experience after a good planning retreat and a resulting epiphany regarding the direction for the non-profit they care about.   This isn’t a result of the brilliant strategies that came about.  Rather, it was a process where everyone agreed on direction, priorities, and a sense of shared purpose.

Strategic plans are a sound basis for ongoing strategic discussion.  They must be fluid to adapt to an always-changing environment.  They have to be continuously reviewed and debated and agreed-upon.  They are the beginning of the process, not the end.