Long-term strategic planning: R.I.P., or just in need of an upgrade?

pexels-photo-mediumAt my organization, GEO, we’re about to start multiyear strategic planning. You either just got really excited for us, or you let out a huge groan. Personally, I love long-range planning, but if you were in the latter camp, I get it. Years ago, I attended the American Society of Association Executives annual conference in Chicago. They did a hilarious send-up of the craziness of associations, and nonprofits in general, with their original performance of Association: The Musical. In a brilliant scene, the COO leads the staff through an elaborate dance that ends with the ceremonial placing of the multiyear strategy, stored of course in a thick, three-ring binder, on the shelf. This is an all too common experience. It’s caused some nonprofits to ask, is the age of the multiyear strategic plan dead?

Lots of nonprofits have had terrible experiences with long-range planning. So, when it’s time to start planning, is it any wonder that what people hear is, “Hey, everyone, let’s get ready to spend a whole bunch of the next six months sitting around coming up with a really long document that we’ll all be sick of before Day 1 of this 1,825 day plan!” But before we go declaring long terms plans to be deceased, we also need to admit that there are some good ones out there. So what does a good long range plan look like? In my experience, there’s no ideal length or checklist of things that have to be included. I think the only things that really matter are that:

  • you’ve involved people in the right way (The Right People in the Right Rooms at the Right Times, as my colleague Kristen Scott Kennedy puts it),
  • the description of the destination, and how you think you’ll get there, is meaningful to you and your team,
  • everyone can see themselves somewhere in the plan, and
  • you’ve run the numbers to do a gut check on how realistic it is. A little magical thinking is good, but, you know, let’s not get too crazy with it.

All plans are not created equal, however. They come in many varieties, but there are basically three types:

The first type of multiyear plan is what we daydream about. In this scenario, you plan out your outcomes and everything goes along precisely on schedule with no variation and you get all the funding you need to do everything in the plan and Ellen DeGeneres invites you to dance on her show. We’ll call this the Chicken-Cat-Princess Model of Planning. When my daughter was three years old, she couldn’t decide between those three costumes. She told my wife and me that for Halloween that year she wanted to be a chicken, that the next year, when she’d be four, she wanted to be a cat, and when she was five, a princess. We nodded to each other in our knowing parental way, sure that things would change as her interests evolved. The next October, I asked my daughter what she wanted to be. She looked at me in disbelief and said, “I told you, I want to be a cat.” In other words, refer to the plan, Dad. By the next year, she’d mostly lost interest in princesses, so I thought this would probably be the year she’d abandon the plan. When I asked, again, what she wanted to be, she answered with a sigh at having to continually repeat herself every year. “Daddy, a princess.” Other than my daughter, though, I have never met anyone who sticks to a multiyear plan in such a determined way, and whose outcomes so exactly match the original set of objectives.

What to do with a Chicken-Cat-Princess plan: Place it next to “Major General Operating Support Grants Resulting from Unsolicited Letters of Inquiry” and “Easy Database Migrations” in the mystical cabinet of Things That Don’t Exist.

The next type of multiyear planning is when you have a clear destination, and you have laid out a very specific set of steps, but if anything goes awry, even something minor, you’re in deep, deep trouble. Let’s refer to this one as the Yahoo Maps Model of Planning. There was a time, before GPS was so ubiquitous, that if you wanted to get somewhere, you’d type your destination into Yahoo (or some other mapping software – amazing, I know, but it seemed so wondrous at the time) and print out turn-by-turn directions on a piece of paper. This was actually much worse than navigating with the use of a map, because if you missed a turn, good luck to you on getting back on course. Bad multiyear plans are like this. When the route you mapped out doesn’t work out exactly as planned, or you encounter an unexpected obstacle along the way, getting back on track is nearly impossible. Suddenly, you find yourself going in circles or stuck by the side of the road trying to figure out what to do next.

What to do with a Yahoo Maps plan: All too often, this is the kind of plan nonprofits end up with. It works for the first few months, but becomes pretty useless once the first few things don’t go as planned. I suspect it was a Yahoo Maps plan that ceremoniously got put on the shelf in Association: The Musical. Because we think a good plan needs to get concrete, we lovingly craft all sorts of beautiful specifics for ourselves. The problem is that these plans are full of lots of beautiful specifics, and we don’t have a plan for what to do once things don’t play out the way we thought they would. Unfortunately, this is the kind of plan that is destined to gather dust.

The third type of plan is when you have a clear destination, but you are flexible enough to take a new route along the way as new information becomes available. This is the one we want. We want to know where we’re headed, but not cling too tightly to the first route we chose. We’ll call this one the Waze Model of Planning. Waze is my favorite navigation app. It gets constant information from a community of users, and subscribers are constantly letting each other know when there are dangerous objects in the road. You can also see at a glance if there’s heavy traffic just up ahead, because that part of the road is clearly marked in red. Most importantly, Waze reroutes you if conditions on the road change. This is what our multiyear plans need. Constant feedback on how things are changing in your environment, warning about imminent dangers, new estimated times of arrival and continual searching for more effective routes to your destination – these things are all extremely important.

What to do with a Waze plan: Sometimes we in nonprofits overthink what we need to do with our plans. As long as everyone is clear on your big goals, you’re regularly (say two or three times a year) sitting down and looking at how everything’s going, and you’re willing to reroute, you’re doing it right. I’d recommend doing more frequent rerouting for discrete projects and programs as well, if you can, particularly the ones that you think of as big experiments. One simple thing we’ve done at GEO is to use the same format for our annual work plans that we used in our strategic plan. It allows us to talk about what’s working well, what didn’t pan out, and new things we’re adding along the way.

I’m sometimes asked, shouldn’t nonprofits always be in strategic planning mode? Sure, but only if you want to drive your colleagues bananas. Long range planning can be exciting, but it’s also incredibly tiring. If you don’t mind a revolt on your hands, by all means, go through intensive long-range planning every six months. Big ideas take a while to play out, and staff need the time and space to focus on that. Instead, we should periodically be asking if we need to reroute.

Do GEO’s multiyear plans have lots of beautiful specifics? Of course they do. I actually think it’s super useful to get pretty detailed. The process has a good way of getting everyone on the same page. However, you can’t get too married to any single activity in the plan. While we shouldn’t cut off experiments off too soon, we also need to acknowledge when something isn’t working and needs to take a new course.

If you’re about to start multiyear planning, I’m excited for you. It’s a time to dream. Dreams are what they are, though, and you’ll be happier if you plan ahead now for some rerouting. Planning is, for better or worse, my favorite time of year. Except for Halloween of course. Good luck, everyone, on picking out this year’s costume. You have my permission, though, to wait on picking out next year’s.


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