I believe there is a misconception out there about strategic planning because I keep running into executive directors who think just because the current plan is expiring that is must be time to begin work on a new strategic plan. I also oftentimes run into folks who believe it is a perfect time to start planning when their agency is experiencing instability, blurriness, and confusion. In my humble opinion, there is a time and place for strategic planning and embarking on this journey at the wrong time can be at best frustrating and at worst damaging.
Just the other day, I was talking with a friend about this issue, and they asked the obvious question, “How do you know when the conditions are right?” I started off saying something stupid like: “You’ll know when the time is right.” I knew it was dumb advice as it was coming out of my mouth.
So, I went home and started digging through my library of planning materials. I came across an old strategic planning document from a previous employer who had partnered with BoardSource to create the manual. So, you know it is good stuff. 😉
As I had hoped, I found a section titled “Key Questions to Assess Readiness and Capacity”. Here are those questions:
- Do your regular board meetings (apart from retreats) include at least one strategic, or “Big Picture,” issue on the agenda?
- Is your current strategic plan based on realistic and comprehensive assumptions about the agency and its external environment? What considerations are missing?
- How might changing demographics and other economic, social, and political trends affect a constituent, client, or membership base that provides a primary revenue stream?
- What goal should the agency strive to achieve for financial reserves (for example, at least one-half of the operating budget)? Are there some potential revenue streams to consider?
- Are new priorities clear and the proposed means of paying for them realistic? Which programs should be self-supporting? Which might be operated at a loss in order to fulfill the agency’s mission?
- What metrics do you use to monitor organizational effectiveness?
- Have you considered all the options and chosen a planning method (aka planning model) that works best for the agency? Are you flexible enough to combine approaches if that suits our culture?
- How do you include board members who are not on the planning committee as participants in the process?
- What performance measures should be included in your strategic plan?
- How do you keep our strategic plan active and visible within and outside the agency?
- How often do you conduct strategic planning? Does that cycle make sense for the agency?
- When you are ready to undertake a planning process, are you clear about why you are planning?
- Are you clear about the roles of the board, executive director, and staff in strategic planning? Do you honor the distinctions?
- Have you used consultants in the most effective ways possible? If you have never used a consultant, should you consider doing so?
I’m not thrilled with these questions because I think they blend together two different issues — capacity and readiness. So, if you’re just trying to decide whether or not your agency is ready to start down the strategic planning road, I suggest you and your board governance committee spend some time chewing on questions 7, 8, 11, 12, and 13.
The other questions are important, too. I just think the five question I just highlighted cut to the heart of the matter.
We’re not ready, but we still need a plan!
If your board governance committee determines that you’re not ready, but you see difficulty down the road and think you need a plan to guide your efforts, you may not be out-of-luck.
You should look into developing a short-term tactical plan focused on the next 12 months.
Perhaps, a business plan or a something addressing a specific agency function (e.g. resource development, program, facilities, etc) might be a better use of time for you and your volunteers.
Did you mention consequences?
Earlier in this post I said, “. . . there is a time and place for strategic planning and embarking on this journey at the wrong time can be at best frustrating and at worst damaging.”
I been down this path many times, and I encourage you to please learn from my mistakes.
If you start down a strategic planning road when you aren’t ready to do so, I’ve seen the following things happen:
- It feels like you’re spinning your wheels, and you end up spending LOTS of time of stuff that you thought were obvious.
- Volunteers get frustrated. They feel like they’re going nowhere fast. Some even express that it is a waste of their time.
- I’ve seen board members resign in the middle of difficult strategic planning processes.
- I’ve seen major disagreements result in boardroom rifts.
- I’ve also seen executive directors get fired.
How has your agency determined readiness? Do you have other questions to add to the list? Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts and experiences. We can all learn from each other.
Here’s to your health!
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC
Great post! I completely agree that the full list is a blend of capacity and readiness. You are spot on about questions 7, 8, 11, 12, and 13.
I get a lot of calls from people looking to implement a strategic plan when what they really need to look at is Board Development. A weak Board – or the wrong Board – will create a weak plan or the wrong plan, neither of which is likely to get your organization to the right place.
Thanks for the opportunity,