Is your strategic plan strategic?

A strategic plan is the guiding document for an organization, describing the approaches and actions the organization will take over a certain time period to achieve a set of agreed-upon goals and objectives. It provides a framework for staff to focus their annual and shorter-term work, and for the Board and leadership to measure the organization’s progress and success.

Every organization has a strategic plan, but is that plan actually strategic?

Being strategic means acting with a specific end in mind. It means take steps towards a clear destination. It means being intentional, so that every action serves a purpose.

Many of the strategic plans I’ve seen are a laundry list of activities to be done. Activities that are all thoughtful, all important or valuable, and all mission-aligned. But it isn’t clear how those activities were selected, or how they will collectively move the organization towards a specific outcome. There doesn’t seem to be any intent behind the actions, as if someone thought of things to do without thinking of why to do them.

Good strategic plans are grounded in strategy – thoughtful approaches to achieving a desired aim. What this means in practice is first deciding what you need to do in the time frame of the strategic plan to achieve your mission, before deciding on goals, objectives, and tactics. That way, every action you take is clear, focused, and purposeful.

When I work with clients on strategic planning, I usually pose the following questions:

  • What audiences do you need to reach first?
  • What geographies are your top priority? Why?
  • What is the best approach to growing or expanding your work to reach more people?
  • What barriers do you need to overcome in order to succeed?
  • What can you reasonably achieve in the next five years (or timeframe of the plan)?

There are many possible ways to approach the work, but an organization must decide what path it wants to walk. This is why strategic planning usually begins with a SWOT analysis – to first consider the organization’s competencies and the opportunities and challenges it will face.

When investing in a strategic planning process, make sure that your plan is actually strategic. It will help your organization to act with a clear understanding of the intent and thus bring greater focus to your staff and Board.



Live your values

An important part of strategic planning is defining your organization’s values. If you look, the values of many companies are external-facing – how they treat customers, how they provide products, how they deliver services. Their values demonstrate the quality of their offering and their approach to offering it. (In other words, their values communicate part of their value to customers.)

But an organization’s values are not just for marketing. While values certainly lay the foundation for how an organization delivers to its customers, those values should also dictate how they operate internally. After all, what you provide customers is a reflection of how you operate.

Values are the things you care about as an institution – your core beliefs and what you stand for. They lay the foundation for your organization’s culture and social norms – not just how you treat customers, but how you treat one another on a daily basis. They should guide your decisions for strategy and programs, as well as your day-to-day operations. They should set the tone for how your leaders and your employees behave. And they should help establish your organization’s personality and identity.

Your values determine your choices, and your choices reflect who you are. As Professor Dumbledore said in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” Who we are determines our choices, and what we value determines who we are.

When developing your organization’s values, consider how they would affect how your employees behave on a daily basis. Are you treating your customers differently than one another? Or do you truly apply your values to all aspects of your work? If you want to be your best for your customers, you should start by living your values within your organization.

Take care of yourself first

There’s a concept in Judaism called tikkun olam that describes acts of kindness to perfect or repair the world. Though it has religious underpinnings, the idea is often more broadly applied to social policy and social justice issues. Tikkun olam is about healing the world, but the process begins with the individual: you must heal yourself first before you can heal your family, your community, your state, and eventually the world. The first step to fixing societal problems is to look inward and make sure you have the strength, well-being, and capacity to help others.

This concept is helpful for individuals (particularly those who push themselves to their limits and forget about their own self-care) but it is also useful for organizations.

When organizations look at their goals, they tend to be focused on the external ones – what sort of impact the organization wants to have on the world and the strategies needed to achieve that impact. Organizations like to think big and work hard to make a real difference and have a lasting impact.

But in order to achieve those big goals, it’s important to also look inward and think about what the organization needs in order to be successful. What capacity does the organization need to have to implement its plans and what capacity will it need to create? What are the resources – human, financial, technological, and institutional – that must be in place if the organization is to succeed and remain resilient? Are you growing the organization to meet the coming challenges or are you pushing its limits and reducing its effectiveness?

As you strategize for external change, think about strategies for organizational growth and development to achieve those goals. This is done at the strategic plan level, but also at the level of annual planning, team planning, and individual objectives. How are resources being acquired and allocated? How are teams structured and managed for greater productivity? How are individuals developing their own competencies to achieve their objectives?

The first step to helping others is to take care of yourself. Make sure your organization has the strength, resources, and resilience it needs to achieve great things.