Thursday, April 21, 2011

Arguments Against Planning

I sat in on a strategy meeting recently for an organization with ten years of impressive accomplishments and a founder looking toward retirement. Its finances are very tight, so it needs to do some significant fundraising along with preparing for its next phase with a new executive director.

Several thoughtful, experienced committee members expressed doubts about the value of strategic planning at a moment when the organization needs to focus on fundraising and succession planning to assure survival.

The question I posed was whether this was really the time to take a pass on strategy, or to improvise without a plan. Even if the idea of strategic planning had been tainted by bad experiences, some strategic thinking and some sort of plan of action would seem to be exactly what was needed.

Even a narrow focus on fundraising and succession planning should lead to this conclusion.

  • The best case for fundraising is a good strategic plan. It can assure prospective donors that you know exactly what you need their money for, and will use it wisely. How can you raise money without a plan?
  • An organization with an important mission and committed members should not go into a leadership transition without adequate preparation. You are not a blank slate. If you can be clear about where you are, where you want to go, and how you think you might get there, you will be better able to:
    • define the characteristics and job description of the new leader
    • attract a strong candidate
    • offer a framework within which a new leader can be successful
    • pursue your mission through an approach conditioned by your experience

The argument is sometimes made that a new leader should have the leeway to shape an organization to his/her vision. Hogwash. A strong organization should focus its own vision first. There will still be plenty of room for a new CEO to exert leadership and engage his/her talents in moving the organization forward.

However obvious these points are to someone who advises others on strategy and planning, this was certainly not the first time I had heard the objections. A few days later, during a webinar I was presenting on strategic planning, I decided to pursue the question a bit further by asking the attendees what objections to strategic planning they had encountered.

Here are a few of them, with talking points:

In my organization, the volunteer board members do not see any tangible value in long range planning.

  1. Drop the term long-range: The term long-range planning has often been used interchangeably with strategic planning. A strategy should have some durability, but a long-range plan suggests to some trustees the need to predict conditions for an unreasonably extended period, and determine now what actions to take to address them. Avoid this terminology. Strategic planning is about understanding the present and setting out on a productive path, not locking into a long-term way of doing things.
  2. As for tangible value, there are many valuable, measurable, and immediate benefits to the process of strategic planning, and there are harsh penalties for not coming together to think and act strategically. See Critical Issues #1: Why Plan?, #5: The Structure of Planning, #7: On a Mission, #8: The Measure of Success.

People have been involved in so many ineffective processes that they are dismissive of strategic planning.

  1. Strategic planning has often been done badly for many reasons, most frequently because the process was not customized to the specific needs, resources, culture, experience, and motivations of the organization See Critical Issues #5: The Structure of Planning. That doesn’t mean you don’t need a strategy and a plan of action. Point that out. Find out what the failings were of the prior experience. Perhaps even call the process something other than strategic planning.
  2. Leadership is often required to counter resistance. The CEO and Board Chair should work together to convince others of value. They might draw on the experience of a consultant or a leader of another nonprofit that has gone through a successful planning process.

Planning takes a lot of time; the environment changing so fast that by the time you do the process, things have already had to be decided. Changes are quicker than process

  1. First, operations go on during a strategic planning process. The organization doesn’t get put on hold. The job of the planning process is to move as quickly as it can to produce decision support that will better position the organization.
  2. Second, not everything is in rapid flux. The organization’s mission and vision should have some stability, along with broadly stated mission-based goals. These goals are achieved though a set of shorter term supporting objectives with a frequently updated set of measurable actions required to achieve them. See Critical Issues #5: The Structure of Planning.
  3. There is no fixed length for a strategic planning process—or even a fixed process. As noted already, to be effective a strategic planning process must be customized to the specific needs, resources, culture, experience, and motivations of the organization. In some cases this suggests a very quick process to get started (see below), in others, an ongoing process of reevaluation of actions and objectives within a strategic framework.

My organization is very young, so we are still changing and exploring our model. I’m not sure at what point in an organization’s life cycle we are *supposed* to do an overall strategic plan.

  1. Now. Without a strategy, how can you assess options for what to do? It may be that your first strategic plan needs to be worked out quickly and not have too long a timeline. It may be thought of as a way, in your terms, to explore and test your model. With one struggling organization, I facilitated a weekend retreat that emerged with an almost complete strategic plan framing the work needed over the following six months, to ensure survival. With some ongoing strategic thinking, it could be refreshed for a while longer than that.
  2. Eventually, with growth and success, there will be a need to dig more deeply into a more robustly designed and implemented strategic planning process. See Critical Issues #1: Why Plan? But there is always a place to start, and the time is always right to be guided by a strategy.

People fear it will bring up major divisions/conflict about where our relatively young organization should put its efforts… or simply unrealistic goals.

  1. The basic issue here is the danger of avoiding open discussion of differences. Will divisions be reconciled more easily after they are further entrenched? With hidden unresolved conflict, how is a young organization going to mature successfully? See Critical Issues #2: The Secret Life of Surveys, #7: On a Mission.
  2. A good planning process develops ambitious yet achievable goals. Mission drives goals, which drive objectives, which drive actions. Along the way you examine assumptions and capabilities and adjust. See Critical Issues #8: The Measure of Success. If you can’t be realistic when working out a strategy, are you more likely to have that wisdom in the heat of day-to-day demands?

We don’t have the capacity to enact the plan we come up with! (all volunteer organization) It will just make more work for everyone.

  1. A good plan should push everyone to work smarter, not harder. The process should identify—and eliminate—activities that are not critical to operations or mission, or ones that are too big a stretch for current resources and stage of development.
  2. You might even have to refine your thinking about the breadth of your mission. As noted above, if you can’t be realistic when working out a strategy, are you more likely to have that wisdom in the heat of day-to-day demands?