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Strategic Planning Possibilities and Pitfalls
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Strategic Planning Possibilities and Pitfalls

Without careful planning for the imagined changes, the best-laid plans will fail.

n my consulting projects I spend a fair amount of time helping people with planning— for a specific program’s development or creating an overarching strategy at the organizational level. I often notice two things:

  • People are reluctant to plan ways to stop doing anything. When planning what to do, most people are in their comfort zone. Planning what not to do? Not so much.
  • People often decide that their organizations need to change and evolve. But while they think clearly and purposefully about the changes needed, planning the change itself, how the evolution will occur, is conceptually hard. “Thinking makes it so” is a frequently encountered change-management strategy. Yet we know that change is difficult and requires sustained effort.

In a for-profit business, it’s easier to figure out what not to do, and change is a constant imperative. That’s not to say it’s easy. There are financial disciplines around the calculation. If your margins are so low you can’t sleep, or you have new competitors who are eating your lunch, or you just aren’t turning a profit with specific products or services, a good manager will cut her losses, reconfigure and re-invent.

For nonprofit organizations, the return on investment is less easily analyzed. There frequently are important constituents ready to advocate for the continuation of every program and service. For example, a major donor may support a particular program. If the program ends, the donor may be unwilling to shift contributions to something else. Or an important constituency may be served, and may have nowhere else in the community to find the services you want to end. Changes may affect a devoted employee.

Finally, sometimes ending a program or service is extremely complicated because of cascading consequences for staff, facilities and budgets. In the nonprofit sector’s consensus decision-making model, developing plans to end a major activity can be a minefield that challenges the navigational skills of the most experienced leaders.

So what to do? Here are a few practices that I’ve seen clients use effectively.

Want to strengthen and develop your programs? Ask the people doing the work.

Staff working on the front lines often have the best ideas for changing organizational practices creatively and effectively. They know how they spend their time, they know which of their tools are antiquated or inefficient, and they often are quietly musing about “if I ran this place” and are the source of breakthrough ideas. Unfortunately, these are the very staff that often are left out of the planning process, especially in large organizations.

It can feel risky for a junior staff person to speak up and challenge management thinking. But these are the very ideas needed to move forward. Talk to these folks and draw them in. As a benefit of creating an open and inclusive planning process, employees will feel more ownership and engagement in the work, and are more likely to stick around if they think their perspectives are important and their ideas enacted.

Want fresh thinking? Include people who know little about your line of work, but a lot about getting things done.

Board members or volunteer advisors—who care about a nonprofit’s community impact but come from entirely different sectors—can be a wonderful source of imaginative thinking. Simply by asking basic questions about how work gets done, experienced managers from other fields can trigger reexamination and innovation.

For example, board members who work in for-profits often have access to software platforms and technology tools that support work-process efficiencies. I’ve seen nonprofit workers agog when a board member describes how relatively low-cost technology can assist with cumbersome and tedious tasks. Customer service, customer experience and customer relationship management tools are all undersupported in the nonprofit sector, whereas for-profits are innovating in these areas.

A strong board-staff planning committee with several outside perspectives can be the catalytic “secret sauce” that nonprofit leaders need to bring new thinking to their organizations, figure out what not to do, and advance their organizations.

And don’t forget to plan for change.

Just as program development requires a significant investment in thinking about the route from concept to delivery, so does planning for organizational changes, small or large. Change takes time, and it often requires cash. Certainly it requires a well-conceived set of talking points and communications strategies—ones that successful leaders will repeat and embody for months and even years.

John Kotter’s landmark book, Leading Change, details an eight-stage process for creating and sustaining major change. Summarized in a single page and then carefully detailed in what is essentially a management workbook, Kotter’s guide centers on the communication strategies necessary for effective change management. Included in his analysis of the most common errors in change management: “undercommunicating the vision by a factor of 10 (or even 100 or even 1,000).”

Planning for change requires teamwork, time, wits and energy. Every strategic plan should include the plan for how the change will be initiated, communicated, understood, enacted and sustained. Does your organization’s plan have these elements? If not, enjoy the process of building in the ways you and the people in your organization will make the change happen. You’ll be glad you did.

Sarah Lutman is a St. Paul-based independent consultant and writer for clients in the cultural, media and philanthropic sectors.

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