By Steve Strang

In 2019 I wrote a blog post advocating for organizations to try a more adaptive strategic planning approach. In that post, I write:

“Imagine you hire a strategy consultant who binds up your three-year plan, which includes more goals, objectives, outcomes, and tactics than you could dream of. It’s 2019, so the plan expires in 2022. Then, the world changes….”

Well, here we are – the world has sure changed. Though I did not have the foresight to use a global pandemic as an example of how the world might change, the premise still stands. If your organization had a more adaptive process for strategic planning, the pivot in a crisis could have been a little more straightforward – without having to throw out all of your past strategy work.

A More Adaptive Approach

This has been a devastating pandemic. But, one thing that has been demonstrated in the last year is that organizations can still operate with shorter-term strategies in place. In fact, the “three-year plan” may no longer have the same relevancy. Being more adaptive in your planning process is rooted in removing fixed timelines from the overall plan.

We’ve written extensively about our strategic process – which is focused on organizational challenges and issues being addressed, not timelines. This also refocuses our work on the strategy part of strategic planning and leaving the planning to a more annual work plan process. Let’s identify exactly what we want to accomplish as an organization, how we measure success, the outcomes we (and partners) need – and build out high-level strategies to accomplish these outcomes. Within this process, we will spend less time worrying about building extensive lists of tasks we need to accomplish over the next 3 to 5 years. This mindset shift moves your organization into formal strategic thinking when you are not accomplishing your impact to the best of your ability, not because your last 3-year plan ran out. (and hopefully informal on a more regular basis as well!)

Foundational steps

Foundational steps like articulating your intended impact and your impact strategy can serve as pillars to keep your organization focused on accomplishing its mission and impact. In the ongoing orientation toward sustainability, you can start by asking: “If our organization went away today, who would it matter to and why?” Creating this beacon then assists in creating program measures for this impact to evaluate the business model. This allows you to easily review How you accomplish your impact – with your current model. In the last year, the programs you’ve run most likely not completed with the same methods as they were in 2019. Programs need to adapt to resources, capacity, community needs, and other influences. And, with continual (and unknown) changes down the pike – we think being data-driven and flexible with programming is important to the sustainability of your organization.

As a leader, I can’t imagine having the foresight to see the next 3 years with full certainty – as we don’t even know how the end of 2021 is going to play out. When will buildings open fully? Can we meet in person? What are our funder priorities moving forward? Allow your organization space to adapt, while staying focused on the big picture of accomplishing your intended impact.

Starting a Process

Being more adaptive leads to more emphasis on learning and changing – and building that into staff roles, leadership meetings, board meetings, and other operations within the organization are critical. Take a look at our sample timing framework to give you a starting place for how to make this change in your organization. This table provides a possible outline of how your organization could structure a year of strategic thinking.implementing adaptive strategy

Want more resources?

  1. Spectrum has outlined thoughts on thinking strategically during the pandemic and lessons learned one year later in past posts.
  2. In March of 2021, I was a guest on the Blackbaud podcast sgENGAGE. In this 20 minute interview, I talked about why taking a more adaptive approach is important – and what we’ve learned over the last year. (check it out below!)
  3. Intended Impact: Telling Everyone Where You’re Trying to Go
  4. Original blog post link: https://spectrumnonprofit.com/adaptive-strategy-in-nonprofits/