By: Steve Zimmerman
As a strategy consultant, admitting one of your favorite articles is titled “The Big Lie Of Strategic Planning” is a little scary. However, many of us – consultants included – feel the sense of exhaustion and dread associated with the words “Strategic Planning.” BoardSource lists “ensure effective planning” among the ten basic responsibilities of nonprofit boards. To meet this responsibility, boards often engage in a strategic planning process designed to “check the box” that ultimately devolves into wordsmithing rather than thinking deeply about the strategic direction of the organization.
In this article, Roger Martin addresses why strategic planning processes may not work: we’re actually afraid of planning. People “find it scary, because it forces them to confront a future they can only guess at. Worse, actually choosing a strategy entails making decisions that explicitly cut off possibilities and options.” Unfortunately, because of this fear, board and staff often end up not making decisions or tradeoffs, resulting in a plan that isn’t feasible because of capacity, revenue, or both.
To build a strong organization, leadership needs to understand the available choices, assess their implications, and make the best decision possible at the time. “True strategy is about placing bets and making hard choices.” Having a defined process may help us cope with the fear, but Martin believes discomfort is an “essential part of strategy making. In fact, if you are entirely comfortable with your strategy there’s a strong chance it isn’t very good.”
For anyone about to embark on a meaningful strategy process, this is an important reminder. It can be uncomfortable to honestly assess and candidly discuss how programs are performing or to decide between investing in programs versus revenue strategies. There are often no clear or binary answers in strategy. Our missions and passion often implore us to do everything, yet strategy is about where to focus, which implies something needs to be left out. Martin argues we should be explicit about what the organization chooses to do and not do and why.
To make the most of strategy and accomplish this focus, Martin suggests we should keep the strategy statement simple – focusing on the organization’s true challenges and the strategic options and tradeoffs for addressing them. Lastly, he reminds us that strategy is not about perfection. None of us can predict the future. Rather, we choose a path, explicitly state the assumptions and implement. Strategic organizations monitor progress, learn and refine their direction on an ongoing basis creating a strong, adaptive organization that sustainability delivers on its mission.