Hold Off on Your Strategic Plan (and Build Strategic Awareness Instead)
Strategic planning has such a bad reputation out there. Why do so many nonprofits shudder when the strategic plan cycle comes around again? Why do so many never complete or follow their strategic plan? Why do so many not have a strategic plan? In our experience of over 35 years in the nonprofit sector at senior leadership levels and advisory positions, over 85% of strategic plans we have seen are useless and the CEOs and boards readily agree these plans are useless.
Here are some of the more common reasons and justifications we’ve come across as to why traditional strategic planning just doesn’t work. We’re sure you will be able to add to the list!
- Strategic planning is a waste of time, too complex and with limited outcomes.
- Day to day issues require a lot of time and attention, leaving little time available for us to do any planning, let alone strategic planning.
- The strategic plan process is a commercial business technique which is not appropriate or suitable for our nonprofit.
- We only do strategic planning because our funding is tied to us having a strategic plan. Thank heavens it is over for this year!
- What, you want me to do my job and this darn strategic plan as well! Not going to happen!! (Probably not a good career move, but very common nevertheless.)
So let’s start from scratch. Let’s put aside the strategic plan – at least for now. Let’s instead focus on creating a culture of strategic awareness at the board and senior executive level. Once we have this strategic awareness regularly occurring at the leadership level, then the strategic plan – perhaps a different version of the strategic plan – starts to make sense and actually has the possibility of truly adding value.
How Do We Create Strategic Awareness?
Strategic awareness is how non-analytic data is accessed through what is best described as awareness or inner knowing, and is incorporated into the strategic decision-making process of the board and senior executives as an integral component. Furthermore, awareness, when combined with strategy, enhances analytic thinking and provides insights as to timing, specific strategy and innovation. Strategic awareness allows us to take in a wide range of information and perceive things in a broader context, to take advantage of opportunities and to avoid problems that trap other people.
This powerful combination of awareness and business strategy creates momentum and enables us to take advantage of all the new opportunities that the hyper-change environment is creating. Breaking this down:
- Awareness is the ability each of us has to know something directly without analytic processing. It is an intrinsic skill and a natural gift we all have. Among its many descriptions, awareness is depicted as the ability to know without the use of rational thought processes or direct cognition.
- Strategic awareness is the process of fusing awareness to strategy, and incorporating real world knowledge of industry, global trends and possible futures.
- Our view is that being strategic is less about planning ahead and more about continuous monitoring of the environment, rapid response and fast adaptation. Being strategic, then, means being clear about the organization's vision and mission, being aware of the organization's resources, and incorporating both into being consciously responsive to a dynamic environment. Being strategic results in the development of strategy.
Awareness without strategy often results in being mesmerized in the potential possibility realm, bouncing from idea to idea almost at random without the need or strategy to carry it through in physical reality.
Strategy without awareness leads to dangerous practices that are not fluid and do not take into account the changing environment. (For more on strategic awareness, go to
So Where Do We Start……The Board-of Course!
To create a culture of strategic awareness at the senior leadership level means we should start with the board. Here are some tips to start creating this culture.
1. Select the right people for the board. How a board member chooses to “be” is more important than their set of technical skills. Even for those boards who are wholly elected, these are the abilities that should be encouraged from those elected.
- No fixed point of view – willing to look at options rather than try to make the world fit their fixed point of view of how things should be.
- Willing to “be” the question and function from curiosity and possibility, not be or hold on to the answer.
- Willing to receive information without judgment and look at it as it is – not as good or bad, right or wrong.
- Willing to both analyze and listen to intuition, taking note of the risk and forecasts, and also listening to their “gut instinct.”
- Viewing the world from prosperity vs scarcity, where life is seen as possibility, not the lack of.
Everyone has these abilities. It is all a matter of personal choice. A board will be more strategically aware and create greatest change where these skills are encouraged and modeled by the chair and directors, rather than a board where the individuals have high technical skills, but choose not to use the abilities mentioned above.
2. Develop a strategic induction or orientation program. One of the best ways to develop a strategic awareness culture in the board is to start ... at the start. As part of the induction program for new board members, develop an induction session that includes:
- Relevant papers and...
- An introduction to the culture of the board – e.g., here’s how we stay strategic as a board.
- Questions we expect you to consider and ask.
- High expectations – made clear from the beginning.
- Information on how we live the vision and mission.
- Site visits to relevant programs.
3. Design meetings to facilitate strategic thinking and strategic awareness
- Make every meeting a planning session. Structure the board agenda to reflect the key strategies, rather than sticking the strategic goals down as item 46 on a 48 item agenda.
- Add the vision statement to the board agenda. If the board chooses to use this to inform discussions and decisions, this can focus the discussion on what is really important to the organization.
- Align staff reports to strategy. Ensure that staff reports or proposals indicate how they are achieving the strategic directions and where they fit in the strategic goals.
- Provide professional development of the board. Every second board meeting, arrange for someone to provide the board with strategic insight into the environment they are making decisions about.
- Schedule staff presentations to the board. Every second board meeting have a staff member make a presentation to the board regarding the strategic issues that staff person faces in their area of responsibility, and invite the board to ask questions regarding those strategic issues.
- Focus on changes to the strategic environment. Develop a section of the agenda where board members are encouraged to bring to the board’s attention any changes they have seen, heard about or have some insight into that may affect the assumptions the organization works under through its strategic plan.
- Rely on dashboard reporting. Develop dashboard reports that highlight graphically the key elements of the strategic plan, finances and relevant areas such as occupational health and safety statistics.
4. Structure interactions to facilitate strategic awareness
- Remind the board that, as one unknown "philosopher" once said, when two people have the same opinion, one is unnecessary!
- Provide a list of strategic questions for board members as part of the standard board papers sent out prior to meetings.
- Ask different board members to take on the point of view of a specific stakeholder group as part of the discussion (similar to de Bonos Six Hats thinking method).
- Insist on multiple options for discussion and decision, rather than focusing too quickly on "the answer."
- Include one or two “strategic questions for consideration” as part of each proposal to the board.
- Focus on creating a Culture of strategic awareness, and the strategic “plan” will sort itself out.
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