3 Steps to Systemic Strategic Planning

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It must be the time of year, because lately I've seen several posts on strategic planning. Some have evocative titles like: "Does Strategic Planning Matter?", or "How Do We Keep the Plan off the Shelf?” Others are much less suggestive, placing their emphasis on tactics to make the process better.

So, I guess I'll chime in too. Over the years, I've heard my fair share of discussion around the pros and cons of strategic planning; some profess that it's the process, others the plan.  Often the discussion revolves around tips, tricks, and engagement tactics for stakeholders. Perhaps that’s why I usually hear such a big sigh of dread surrounding the planning procedure, with questions like: is it THAT time again? Or, how much time is it going to take?

I think this trepidation springs from two things: 1) not understanding the process, and 2) all the emphasis on engagement tactics and methods rather than strategy. So, let’s take a closer look at how to place the emphasis on the strategy in strategic planning.

If you boil it down to its essentials, strategic planning can be pretty simple.  It's all about determining how to best grow your nonprofit or social enterprise to maximize impact and social good.  If you think about it, there are really only two forms of growth: 1) bigger or 2) better.  Sound too simple? It's not; you want your organization to continuously move forward and at some point you need to decide on where to focus that growth based upon resources. Setting a goal of bigger sends you in one direction, while setting a goal of better sends you in another. In either case, you have a basis for creating objectives to achieve your organizational development goal.

Strategic Planning GraphicOk, so now that I've made it sound simple, I need to explain there's just a bit more to it. The second step to understanding strategic planning is to recognize it’s foundational, like a layer cake.  You can think of it as a pyramid, where there are several stratums, each built and relying upon the one below. Each level has to be fully formed and strong enough to support those above.

At the base you have your core principles. On top of these foundational principles is your business model.  What do you provide, how do you provide it, what makes you special, and where do you fit in the community? Then, to this you add your growth strategy. These three things give you your primary foundation. With an understanding of your environment and your direction set, you can now establish your goals and objectives, which lead to your tactics.

But there is one more leg to the stool and it is critical to your balance. This leg knows that your planning is a continuous process and here is where the paradigm shifts. Planning is systemic; it is circular rather than linear. Most resources recommend that strategic planning take place periodically, once every 3 to 5 years. But in this new paradigm, once it starts, it never ends, because you should be constantly evaluating and adjusting to your progress. Where are we, where do we want to be, how do we get there… where are we… how do get there?

Think holistically and look closely at what you can realistically do in the near future and then continue to tweak your plan.  I’ve found that if you break your planning into easily digestible pieces, it’s much more palatable and productive.  For more insight, give me a call, or pick up the book: “The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution”. Among all the research and approaches I’ve tried, this book was perhaps the biggest single influence that helped me appreciate the systemic nature of strategic planning.

Consider starting your next plan as the beginning of an on-going process, one that cycles onward and upward towards your organizational growth, whether that's bigger, or better.

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