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The Strategic Planning Process: How To Avoid a Plan That Just Sits on the Shelf

Strategic planning has recently being getting a bad rap in nonprofit circles. Many organizational leaders put countless hours and dollars into creating a strategic plan that’s meant to guide the organization forward for years to come, only to end up creating a document that sits on a shelf.

Strategic Planning Process

We, at Olive Grove, don’t see value in that approach and instead help organizations create strategic plans that are flexible, adaptable and implementable—now and for the life of the plan. A good strategic plan should be responsive to the environment and align board and staff members around a vision, while also giving them the tools to embrace new directions. In our experience, strategic plans that don’t sit on the shelf:

  1. Are responsive to emergent conditions
  2. Leverage existing structures for implementation
  3. Provide structure for action and accountability

1. Good Strategic Plans Change With the Times

Creating a plan that cannot be responsive to change is like driving down the road looking in the rear-view mirror—it just doesn’t work for long. Strategic plans need to look ahead, providing leaders with the tools to make decisions based on emerging data and a changing landscape (i.e. state and local policy changes, demographic changes, economic changes). Despite all of our skill and mastery, we just can’t predict the future. So instead, we intentionally design strategic plans with “decision filters” – or a set of criteria that can be applied to new opportunities as they emerge. By coming up with these decision filters, and documenting them in the plan, we leave organizations with tools that can help them adapt to the inevitable changes they will face within the life of the strategic plan.

2. Good Strategic Plans Are Integrated

Many organizations grow organically over time and end up with a number of unrelated or overlapping programs. Provide a strategic plan that is not integrated into the existing management structure and you might as well be adding another unrelated program to the mix. When conducting a strategic plan, we remind our clients that it should help them decide not only what to do, but also what not to do or what to stop doing. Implementation of the plan shouldn’t feel like an extra thing on top of the “real job”; it should be the real job. A good strategic plan should look at the whole and provide objectives that cut across the various pieces of the organization. It’s also a good practice to integrate implementation into an organization’s existing structure. For instance, if the management team meets once a quarter to discuss operational benchmarks, this might be the perfect time to review the strategic initiatives. A plan that’s well integrated into what’s already taking place is much more likely to be successful.

3. Good Strategic Plans are Implementable and Iterative

For a strategic plan to have value, it needs to be easily implemented and made up of actionable items with outlined steps for completing them. The plan should lay out the specific activities for the first year or 18 months, who is responsible for driving each activity as well as when and how success will be evaluated. If you have a strategic plan that tells you the specific action steps that will take place in three years time, someone has sold you a bill of goods. After an initial period, the specificity of activities only gets in the way. What is more important is that you have an agreed upon structure for reviewing action, gathering more data, making sense of data and deciding where and how to adjust your activities or whether a new set of actions is needed.

If an organization is committed to working on a strategic plan and engages the right expertise, it’s the perfect time to alter their future direction. By redefining how strategic planning is done, we, at Olive Grove, help organizations create strategic plans to bend with the times—making them adaptable, malleable and sustainable for the future. A plan that doesn’t leave open room for flexibility isn’t going to succeed in the long term.

Jean Ries

Jean Ries

For over a decade, Jean Ries has supported nonprofits by providing management consulting with specialization in capacity building strategies, organizational assessment and change management. She has delivered outcome-based strategy consulting services to nearly one hundred nonprofits and foundations, ranging from small start-ups in California to multi-million dollar social service organizations in New York. Clients perceive her as a thought partner, helping their organizations to weather change, become more sustainable and plan for the future.