By Steve Zimmerman
Have you noticed when you’re finished watching your favorite show on Netflix the next episode begins automatically in a few seconds? Or, when you buy something on Amazon they suggest other items you may want based on what you’re looking at? Companies have figured out how to reduce friction in decision-making, making it easier for you to move forward without thinking. Unfortunately, we also expect this same automation when it comes to implementing our organization’s strategy.
We know how challenging it is to complete a rigorous, inclusive strategic planning process that explores constituent and community needs, identifies gaps in services, assesses organizational performance and then surfaces a strategy that delivers sustained, high impact, equitable programming. The real work, however, comes not in the planning, but in implementation.
Yet, too often, the exhaustion and joy of being done with strategic planning combined with the ever-changing dynamics of the world in which organizations operate create a friction which hinders – and in some cases completely stops – implementation. Lately, we’ve noticed in our strategy work that after understanding the organization’s current context and identifying challenges and opportunities, the articulated strategic priorities are nearly identical to the ones in the previous plan. In the end, the strategic challenge the organization faced wasn’t something requiring strategic planning. What it required was strategic execution.
There are often many reasons for this, including changing circumstances. Challenges and opportunities arise on their own timeline, and the pandemic is just the latest example of this truism. “A strategy is never excellent in and of itself; it is shaped, enhanced or limited by implementation” writes Rosabeth Moss Kanter in her article “Smart Leaders Focus on Execution First, Strategy Second.” Even though no strategic plan outlined how to respond to the pandemic, organizations didn’t stop thinking strategically during COVID. They adapted to the new realities brought on by the pandemic and shifted their operations to continue to carry out their missions. This form of adaptive strategy takes place every day in nonprofit organizations, but it can be suppressed when strategic plans are too prescriptive.
If the true goal of strategy is to create stronger, more sustainable impact, perhaps there shouldn’t be a distinction between planning and execution. Roger Martin writes in “The Execution Trap” that the distinction between strategy and implementation is not only unhelpful, but it can actually hurt organizations.” Yet, in the nonprofit sector, formal strategic planning processes often create this false distinction rather than fostering a culture that continuously learns and refines strategy toward a shared goal.
To address this issue, Martin uses the analogy of a white-water river where “each set of rapids is a point in the (organization) where choices could be made, with each upstream choice affecting the choice immediately downstream.”
This choice cascade, as he calls it, is best navigated when decisions are based on a shared understanding of the organization’s model. In this frame, planning becomes not just an opportunity to set strategy, but an opportunity to recognize the integrated nature of everything an organization does. Creating alignment around what is driving impact, financial sustainability and personal engagement allows the organization to set overarching strategic priorities and empowers meaningful engagement in future strategic discussions. When everyone is engaged in the strategy process and understands these elements, as opportunities and challenges arise, adjusting the strategy is not the sole purview of either senior leadership or the board – who may be furthest away from the people the organization serves as well as their strengths and barriers to success. Everyone in the organization can have a voice and make strategic decisions. As Kanter says, “Inform everyone, then empower champions,” as excellent execution requires both a breadth of understanding of the organization’s strategy and a depth of knowledge around specific tactics.
To successfully implement a choice cascade, leadership needs to shift their thinking and view strategy processes as an opportunity to build capacity among the entire team. Martin writes we need to give up the “accepted dogma (that) strategy is the purview of senior managers who, often aided by outside consultants, formulate it and then hand off its execution to the rest of the organization.” On the other hand, it doesn’t mean we can craft strategy in a room with 25 people or more. Rather, we need to consider who is deeply involved and how we gain input and insights from everyone who has a stake in the organization. Leadership needs to model the way by defining goals, questioning assumptions, collecting data and ultimately collectively making decisions that create a strategic direction versus a prescriptive route. By defining where we are going and allowing others to choose the day-to-day route, we not only benefit from their experience and wisdom but increase the likelihood of implementation. Setting clear expectations of engagement at the beginning of the process will allow people to see where they can participate and build buy-in for change.
This approach has the benefit of reducing friction by aligning where people agree, the overall mission of the organization, and allowing staff to adjust tactics to maximize impact. By building an understanding of the organization’s finances, including its revenue strategy and its people strategy, we make sure that decisions take into consideration the implications on the whole organization. Psychologist Loran Nordgren speaks to this change management technique as beginning from positions of alignment. “You and I might both recognize that we need to change practices, but what we disagree upon is how to solve this particular problem. So we begin the conversation there. That’s starting at the place of misalignment.” Rather change is more likely to happen if we first establish a “baseline of agreement.” A strategy process focused on the key drivers of impact, people and finance builds that baseline which allows everyone to rally around the core strategies, recognizing that they may need to be adjusted as we learn from implementation.
Planning in this manner also allows the strategy to remain relevant longer, letting people shift tactics as the world changes. A strategy screen, which articulates the questions to be asked during strategic decision making, aids in this process. Different from a rubric which provides an answer, the screen lays out a framework for discussion moving forward, helping put individual decisions into the bigger picture of everything an organization engages in and integrating the organization’s values and priorities into decision making. Setting out the screen during a strategy process allows a greater level of objectivity before the emotion and excitement of a new opportunity emerges, while still allowing choice in the moment.
While we desire to have a perfect strategy, a strategy’s success cannot be measured at the end of planning. Rather, Kanter points out, “When a strategy looks brilliant, it’s because of the quality of execution” and Martin adds “If a strategy produces poor results, how we can we argue that it is brilliant? . . . In what other field do we proclaim something to be brilliant that has failed miserably in its only attempt?”
While we’re all familiar with the cliché of the strategic plan that “sits on the shelf,” we seldom ask, “why?” The traditional three-to-five-year episodic cycle of strategic planning sets up a false distinction between planning and implementation. Furthermore, prescriptive plans allow unexpected challenges and opportunities to create friction against implementation. An adaptive strategy approach, on the other hand, which builds a shared understanding of the key drivers of the organizational model – impact, finance and people – enables organizations to learn from implementation and adjust to the changing world in real time.