How do we ensure that an organization’s strategic plan remains relevant and acts as a guiding star and an enabling framework for its ongoing journey towards its vision?
Most nonprofit organizations invest in creating a strategic plan that documents their vision and long-term goals, as well as the intermediate steps they plan to take to achieve them. But very often, a lot of energy and effort is expended by executives and board members on the creation of the plan, while follow through is lacking. The plan sits on the shelf, gathering dust, while operational priorities and day-to-day problems overwhelm calendars and management bandwidth. The strategic plan languishes, perhaps coming back to life briefly during an annual board retreat.
An essential starting point, of course, is making sure that the plan itself is up-to-date and relevant in a changing environment.
- Was a comprehensive scan of the environment done when the plan was created?
- Were long-held assumptions underlying the organization’s mission questioned and validated to ensure they still hold true?
- Were recent changes in all aspects relevant to the organization and its stakeholders – whether demographic, socioeconomic, technological, regulatory, etc. – taken into account?
A strategic planning process that raises and answers these questions with an open mind is, more likely, to result in a plan that provides an ongoing framework for action.
However well thought out and meticulous the planning process may be, a rapidly changing environment will ensure that at least some parts of the strategic plan are no longer appropriate in new circumstances. We live in times where the pace of social and technological change is accelerating. It is important to understand that uncertainty with regard to future scenarios will continue to increase, and the time period over which we can make reasonable predictions about the future continues to decrease. Recent “black swan” events have driven home this lesson. In such an environment, it is important to be realistic about the timeframe of the strategic plan. While earlier a 5-year strategic plan may have been commonplace, today it may be more appropriate to restrict specific goals, strategies and financial projections to 2-3 year periods, with longer-term aspirations being more qualitative and directional.
Another way to make the strategic plan a living and breathing document is to reinforce it as the ongoing context for management reporting. For example, the organization’s performance metrics that are reported on by executives and discussed in board meetings should be compared to corresponding goals in the strategic plan and contextualized in terms of progress towards the long term vision. This serves as an ongoing reminder and reinforcement of the overall strategic planning framework, and has multiple benefits:
- makes it more likely that significant changes in the environment that impact the plan are identified earlier during board discussions,
- ensures that even as board composition continues to evolve, all board members are aware of the overall strategic direction of the organization, and
- enables mid-course correction and tweaking of the plan without necessarily being constrained by the timeline of the planning cycle.
An effective strategic plan is an unparalleled asset to your organization. It can guide quarterly and annual priorities, clarify organizational goals and vision, and drive innovation.