Evolutionary Strategic Planning

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on February 16th, 2018 in Thoughts & Commentary

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I was recently interviewed as an “outside expert” as part of an organization’s strategic planning process.  The consultant asked what I thought of several possible merger partners for the organization.  I was delighted to hear that the client was in a strong financial position, so that the contemplation of a merger wasn’t out of necessity, but rather out of exploration options that might strengthen the organization.

Despite being in a position of financial strength, the organization was having conversations about the costs—human, financial, energy, etc.—and the burden of running an independent organization.  Might, the board and senior staff, wondered whether there were advantages to giving up the independence in order to be a program of a larger entity?  Might the organization mission be better served by directing all of its resources to the mission instead of diverting some to maintaining it?

That is the kind of question a good strategic planning process should address.  Unfortunately, too few planning processes, even when directed by an outside consultant, take strategic planning beyond the strategic (if they really get that far) to the generative.  Too few planning processes really push an organization to think about the non-linear, hence the generative, of what is possible.  When, as too many do, think of strategic planning simply as outlining a strategy for growth, as opposed to a strategy for evolution, we end up with what most strategic planning processes lead organizations to do:  more of the same.

The most common scenario is a strategic plan that is totally linear, with no real deep thinking.  The plan addresses the question of how we are doing as an organization and where we could do better.  The answer, more often than not, is we could do better by doing more of what we are already doing.  In other words, what programs should we push to expand?

Sadly, these decisions are made without asking—and answering—the all-important question of how each individual program is doing.  It doesn’t look at whether a program is squarely aligned with mission; it doesn’t bother with program based budgeting, leaving it without any understanding of how well—or not—a program is doing in bringing in sufficient funds, be they raised or earned, to cover the true costs of that program.  (To be clear, true costs include a program’s share of the electric bill, rent, development staff time, executive director time, etc., along with the obvious ones, and the ones that are generally reported to funders as the cost of running the program).

Nor does it look at the evaluation data—more often than not because it doesn’t exist—to see whether a program is having the outcome(s) that it promised, achieving the change it vowed.  And it certainly doesn’t take all three of these in combination to assess the real value of each and every program to the organization—fits mission and covers costs—and to the organization and client—actually delivers on the promise(s) it made.  It doesn’t look at the data that will allow them to know—and not simply feel and believe–what is working and what is not.  Instead, it presumes value simply because they are a nonprofit seeking to do good, and it selects those programs that are the easiest sells or can reach the biggest numbers with the least amount of effort.

This is a planning process that, in essence, does all of this work to, in essence, perpetuate the status quo.  This is a planning process that neither pursues, welcomes or values the uncontrolled, often outlandish thoughts—like taking a strong, healthy organization and merging it with another to get out from under the burden of caring for itself—that comes with letting generative thinking out of its cage.  But it is this thinking that propels organizations forward in their evolution.

To be fair, people and groups unfamiliar with and/or uncomfortable with generative thinking don’t generally run with open arms to embrace this approach to addressing the world.  Yet, if you want to gain the full benefit of strategic planning (and who wouldn’t, given the resources it consumes?), you would be wise to take the time to cultivate this skill in the board and, minimally, senior staff before beginning the strategic planning process.




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