I have talked to more organizations than I can count who have said that they haven’t looked at their “strategic plan” in years so it is probably time for a new one. But here’s the thing – traditional strategic plans, documents that are pages and pages of prescribed actions an organization needs to accomplish over five to ten years – or longer – don’t work. Old-school traditional strategic plans written where there are specific objectives outlined over a period of many years, by which an organization is supposed to measure its success against, are doomed to fail. They don’t take into account shifts in available funding, changes to human resource capacity, let alone changes to the political, environmental, technological or social environments. These types of plans were rarely referred to on more than an annual basis and were not seen as’ living documents’ (not moved from “on the shelf” or seen as “doorstops” were past common descriptors). They definitely did not allow for flexibility, and certainly don’t prepare organization’s for times such as we’re experiencing in 2020.
Back when I was completing my graduate work, I wanted to examine what the successful elements of a strategic plan was and figure out a way to develop an approach to strategy development that was both proactive and responsive to its environment. I came to realize that there are four main components of strategy that, together, form a framework for organizational direction: Values, Vision, Mission, and Impact Statements. Though these are not that different to what was included in a traditional Strategic Plan, they way in which they are used is different. I have found that presenting the statements as a one-page Strategic Framework which is then used as a guide for decision making throughout the organization is a simple solution that has been successful for many organizations.
Language is important when it comes to strategy development and planning. Words or phrases can take on different meanings in one organization compared to another (or from one person to another). To mitigate the potential for misunderstandings, one of the things I do in my practice with clients who are developing a strategic framework is to clearly define each of the four components so that everyone at the table is working from the same place.
- Strategy: agreed upon direction (board approved), which encompasses the organization’s values, vision, mission, and impact it wants to achieve; I refer to these statements collectively as a Strategic Framework
- Values: describes what the organization believes in, what it stands for
- Vision: future focused, identifies the desired future of the organizaiton
- Mission: answers three questions: why do we exist? what business are we in? whom do we serve?
- Impact Statements: defines the change that will happen because of our work
The key factor to a successful Strategic Framework is to integrate it into decision making throughout the organization, from the board of directors to frontline staff. Everyone involved needs to understand the direction of the organization and how their work impacts, and influences, that direction. A simple way for this to be successful is to ensure involvement from all parties during the development stage. Bringing staff and board together allows for robust conversations, learnings, and agreement to be reached.
Once an organization develops its Strategic Framework then an operations plan, business plan, or annual plan can be developed. These types of planning documents consider the reality the organization is faced with from a revenue perspective, staffing or volunteer capacity, determining achievable timelines for projects or program development, approaches to evaluation and assessment, and the best way to manage stakeholder relationships. Developing these types of documents once the Strategic Framework process is complete and approved, provides an organization with the opportunity to consider the realities it is faced with and what funding may be available in a given year, where investment in professional development makes the most sense to ensure that the right competencies and skills are on the team, what partnerships or collaborations will support its success, and what targets or objectives are achievable.
One of the most beautiful things about a clear Strategic Framework is that it provides an organization with permission to say no. Not everything is doable, and not every idea is the right idea, and not every suggestion fits with the resources or capacity it have available.
A Strategic Framework provides the criteria to ensure that the decisions being made are putting the organization on the path to achieving the vision of the organization. Developing an annual operations plan then considers the organization’s realities in order to work towards the impacts it has defined and the change it wants to see in its community.