Monday, May 29, 2017

Is the strategic plan still relevant?

Consider this the true confessions of a (non-profit) strategic planning consultant. I wonder deeply, almost daily, whether the activity at the core of my professional life is still a valid approach for the organizations I aim to serve. After this week's readings, I remain conflicted - but have begun to fashion, intellectually, a path toward more adaptive strategic planning, in hopes of better serving clients.

While the strategic planning process has never been perfect, or even one size fits all - especially in light of that fact that I've seen many organizations downright abandon their plan, or produce granular action steps that effectively do the same - it's only in the past ten years that I've seen a more pronounced willingness to abandon the classic format in search of more tailored approaches. I started my professional career at an educational non-profit who didn't even both to produce a plan; instead, it opted for three strategic directives. Wide, bold strokes that served as guiding lights. But when the "plan" period began to sunset, it was clear that there was no real way to understand success. So, I've always been a believer in metrics. Recently I've revisited this question, working on strategic plans for two similar organizations - one of which wanted no metrics as part of its strategic plan, one of which has been utterly devoted to them.

Non-profit A is a state-wide legal aid organization. It has a lean staff, and has been successful in fundraising for its affiliate organizations despite the state having an increasingly conservative legislature. The firm I co-founded has been working with non-profit A for the past 6 months, and the resulting strategic plan is days away from being sent to the Board for final approval. At the specific request of its ED, the plan contains no metrics. At first, this made me uncomfortable. I had gotten in the habit of cascading, from broad goals, to SMART objectives, out of which could flow more granular action steps and timelines. It wasn't that I sought to be prescriptive or controlling - I had found value, and saw clients that found value, in having something tangible to hold themselves accountable to. I wanted to make sure that the final Board meeting of the plan period was like the one I had experienced starting out - full of shrugs and haze about whether the organization had accomplished what it intended to.

Over the past 6 months, our firm has begun to engage non-profit B - interestingly, an affiliate of non-profit A - in a strategic planning process. While it hasn't begun in earnest, we presented at a recent Board meeting about the intended process. In the lead up to that meeting, we had a meeting with the Board chair, who let it be known that this plan would/should have specific, and somewhat granular measurements built in. I was happy to hear this.

Kaplan and Beinhocker's piece on the "Real Value of Strategic Planning" has changed - flipped, really - how I feel about both of these engagements. While non-profit A's deliverables won't include hard metrics, the process of working together, more than any other engagement I've been in, has absolutely  prepared the leadership of the organization to make more strategic decisions. It has been a deep and meaningful reflection period, and the resulting conversations and micro-decisions bode well. The deliverable package - I've spent the previous hour (well, day, really) tidying up the documents in InDesign - contains three strategic goals, with 2-4 guiding questions and related (non-measureable) objectives under each.
"I've been dissatisfied with prior planning processes not because our project team didn’t develop a great work plan, but because I felt our team did all the work for the consultant. ... The [resulting] plan is circular because various goals, and the strategies identified to achieve them, are as much dependent upon timing, politics and other environmental factors as they are on staff  and board energy and zeal." - quote from non-profit A
While this plan is unlike any other I've created for/with a client, I truly believe it meets Kaplan and Beinhocker's ultimate criterion: having "all the participants come out of the process better prepared for the real-time job of strategic decision making." This is going to be my new standard for planning success - although, I'll have to consider how to measure that! With non-profit B, I'm worried whether - at least on the part of the Board - the default to measurement is a short road to "checking out," or at least wanting to go through the motions of a planning process, without doing the hard work of deep reflection. One thing I'll keep considering is how to have the "real work" of strategic planning show up in deliverables. It seems hard to capture - other than in folks own words - but I'm interested in showing clients that they've achieved this (when they have). 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.