No Pain, No Gain in strategic planning: An open letter to my organization in 2040

September 20, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

Warren Krafchik, Executive Director of the International Budget Partnership got in touch to say he’d like to chip in on the discussion on strategic planning, kicked off recently by Mark Goldring.

So, you’re thinking of embarking on a strategic planning process. A little over 20 years ago, I had this same thought and took IBP down a rather bumpy road. It turned out well in the end, but I do advise that you think very carefully before starting a new process.

Strategic planning is difficult, costly, and generates a lot of uncertainty. It can be fun, but it must also be uncomfortable. There are a variety of less intensive and less risky ways to create space for debating an organization’s strategic approach: you might, for example, take everyone out for a drink.

But if you’re thinking big—and I hope you are—then prepare yourself and your colleagues as best as possible. What follows are some questions and reflections to consider from our experience.

Is it the right moment?

Given the costs, finding the right moment is crucial.  We believed that IBP and the fiscal accountability field were not generating the kind of social transformation that originally inspired us. At the same time, many of our most important government allies had ceded power to right-wing populists. This was therefore a political moment to consider a fundamental question: how do we propel impactful fiscal accountability work in a time of democratic recession?

Additionally, this was an important moment for IBP’s organizational development. Significant growth over the previous decade demanded that we ensure our organizational priorities were aligned and that we were most effectively using the resources entrusted to us.

So, make sure you can answer the question, ‘why now?’

The Perfect Strategic Plan?

We identified twin goals for our process: 1) a sharp strategic plan and 2) building a deeper, committed leadership bench. This was a good choice.  Our future growth is dependent on our leadership team, but we were not engaging or developing our future leaders effectively. The planning process provided a real opportunity to broaden and deepen our management team. 

But we fixated mistakenly on emerging with ‘The Perfect Strategic Plan”, when we should have focused on implementation as the end goal. We spent too much of our energy on evaluating the external context, what’s happening in our field, and nitpicking at our own successes and failures, but then ran out of steam before we got to the tough decisions associated with implementation. Big picture discussions are endless intellectual fun, yet they solve few problems. With a different end point, we might have emerged with tighter synergy across programs, or perhaps integrated our work into fewer but stronger programs. 

As for missteps, I’m afraid that we (a budget-focused organization) didn’t properly integrate a discussion of budgeting into the planning process. Oops. Staff emerged from our planning process with inflated expectations of what was affordable, and it was left to a small executive team to introduce some financial reality. A discussion of budgeting too early in the process could stifle creativity, yet not discussing it properly led to tension. Even experts stumble once in a while.

Who is in charge?

It’s easy to have too few or too many people leading the process. We settled on a fairly large team of 14, drawn from senior and mid-level managers across the organization, and emerged with strong buy-in among this group for a clarified vision, mission, and values.  While this team, memorably named SPLAT (Strategic Planning Leadership Team), could successfully drive the thinking, it was too big to self-manage the process.  So, we created a smaller team of four people to coordinate and drive the process with an external facilitator.

The rest of IBP staff felt engaged at important points, but still felt left out a lot of the time. Bridging that gap meant an all-staff retreat to familiarize everyone with the plan and their role in making it work.

Can you disrupt yourself?

Strategic planning is not all about ‘The New.’ It’s just as important to identify and build on what the organization does well. Recognizing existing strengths can make the difference between a meaningful strategic shift and a strategic turn that’s the perfect move . . . for another organization.

Nevertheless, challenging assumptions is vital in strategic planning. Organizations tend toward stasis and positive reinforcement.  Don’t get stuck in this pattern.  

An excellent external facilitator can really help the organization to surface its assumptions, although it is extremely hard to find one who connects deeply with your mission and culture but is sufficiently independent from your organization and field. Other possible ways to bake in constructive provocation include inviting a couple of board members into the core team or cajole external experts you admire in the field to accompany your process. Failing that, you could always ask Duncan, as we did.

The underlying tension

There are many forces pushing the strategic planning process to conclude early.  While strategic thinking can be energizing and empowering, it generates significant anxiety amongst almost everyone. The core job of the leadership is to keep the process open in the face of considerable growing pressure from staff, board members, and donors to close the process. This is a difficult dynamic, especially at the end. But, hang in there. The end can be the most generative bit.

I have long stopped worrying about whether we produced the perfect strategic plan. Our plan is plenty innovative. But now I worry about implementation. It is its implementation that will likely disrupt my sleep for the next five years.  

If you’ve read this far, you must be committed to this exercise. Now I recommend that you grasp the opportunity with all the resources at your disposal.  I am really glad we did.

PS. If you want to explore the relationship between organizational development and anxiety further, I highly recommend the work of Wilfred Bion and the work of the Tavistock Institute. The best introduction to this work ((if you can find a copy) is The Unconscious at Work: Individual and organizational stress in the human services. And if you’re interested, here’s what came out of our process.

September 20, 2019
Duncan Green