Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Importance of Being Strategic

Strategic planning is a formal road map that analyses the way an organization operates, how effective it is at executing various functions, where it is going in the future, and how it is going to get there. Strategic planning helps management better understand their organization on a number of levels, in turn allowing them to focus their resources, time, and efforts in the right (and, importantly, the same) direction. 

An organization can utilize many different frameworks and methods in the strategic planning process; most have a pretty similar sequence and their steps have similar characteristics. They can be grouped into four general parts:

1. Analyzing/assessing the organization's current status as well as external environments. At this stage, management and other key players focus on getting to know the ins and outs of the organization and its environment. It also includes, as Jossey and Bass point out, "identifying organizational mandates," or the formal/legal "must-dos" that can include legislation, ordinances, regulations, contracts, and more. Another key task is to evaluate the organization's mission and vision. A document from the United Way defines an organization's mission as its "reason for existence," a "constant reference point" that "defines basic philosophy but is never completely attainable." An organization's vision is its short- and long-term goals in the context of the mission. Evaluating the mission and vision is important for many reasons. It helps ensure that everyone is on the same page about the organization's purpose, channeling the discussion in a productive direction. 

The mission is also held close in mind while completing a SWOT analysis. A SWOT analysis is an important tool that assesses an organizations' Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Strengths. A strength is any internal activity or position that could help an organization achieve its mission; a weakness is any internal activity or position that would do the opposite. An opportunity is any external position, trend, or issue that could improve the ability of the organization to accomplish its mission; a threat, once again, is an external position, trend, or issue that could hinder the organization's ability to accomplish its mission. A SWOT analysis helps identify key strategic issues an organization will face. According to Jossey and Bass, such issues are "fundamental policy questions or critical challenges" that affect an organization on a variety of levels. 

2. Forming and documenting a strategy. Properly framing strategic issues can be tough, but it is key to success in this second stage. Here, management and other players develop detailed strategies to deal with the issues found in the first stage. An Impact Probability Chart can help determine which issues are most pressing in terms of their potential influence and how likely they are to occur. 

3. Carrying out a strategy. Perhaps the most important part of this stage is developing an action plan. An action plan details who is responsible for what, what expected results are, specific objectives, action steps, timelines, communication processes, review processes, and accountability procedures. The plan should include hard deadlines and figures, i.e., "Increase membership by 15% within the next 9 months." It should answer questions such as "How will we increase membership? Who will be in charge of this effort? How often will they update us on their progress?"

4. Evaluating progress and reassessing strategy. When a good strategic plan fails, it is often because management and other key actors did not reconvene to assess the effectiveness of the plan. Some of "checking in" will be done as part of the action plan from stage three, but a closer look at the overall effectiveness of your strategy will be necessary. What has been successful? What hasn't? Have we been true to our mission? What were the strengths and weaknesses of our strategic planning process?

Kaplan, Robert and David Norton. 1992. "The Balanced Scorecard: Measures that Drive." Harvard Business Review. 
Renz, David O, ed. 2010. The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. United Way of Dane County. No date. “Strategic Planning Process.”