Strategic planning in organizations is often a stressful, time-consuming and technical exercise – done every few years or so, to plan for the next period. One of the problems with this approach is that by the time the strategy has been workshopped, discussed, and written up, there’s a good chance that a lot of it is out of date – particularly in these fast-changing times. Strategic documents can also be overly long – because while the ostensible purpose is to set goals and guide the organization to achieve them, the real purpose is often to persuade or please board members and funders – and so there’s way too much detail. It ends up being a document nobody reads and hardly anyone remembers the details of.
My approach to strategic planning centers listening and storytelling, in an approach that seeks to zero in on a set of nested stories within a strategic narrative, that can help guide the organization and its leadership, staff and supporters in an environment of uncertainty. This allows for the unexpected and for new ideas, pathways and approaches to emerge, rather than setting down a rigid set of guidelines and milestones that can prevent an organization from being adaptive and proactive. I have outlined this approach in more detail here.
I start off with a period of listening and story and intelligence-gathering. Listening to members of the staff, board, community partners and other stakeholders to hear their stories about the organization and their experiences with it and within it; their fears, hopes and dreams for it and for the work, and how they see their place in it. Listening for areas of clarity, and areas of uncertainty, for countervailing voices and areas of tension. I want to understand as much as possible about the history and context of the organization and its work.
I am interested in understanding areas of clarity and areas of tension and uncertainty. Areas of clarity are what we can build on. Areas of tension and uncertainty and questions of priority are where much of the discussion needs to take place, as this is where key decisions need to be made, and possible turning points identified.
I like to view the strategy process as one of developing a set of nested stories: stories about the organization, about partners, stakeholders and audiences, about the vision or North Star the organization holds dear. Once these stories have been heard, fleshed out and developed, it is much easier to work through the key tensions, uncertainties and decision-points, and to decide on a way forward.
This is a very participatory approach that values the views and voice of a range of role-players, but it is important to be clear and transparent about how final strategic decisions will be made.
Through listening, I try and understand where the organization needs and wants to move to, and I like to try and find ways to help participants in the strategy discussions get into the most helpful mindset to enable relevant insights and breakthroughs.
For example, for my own team when I was Director of Media and Narratives in the Open Society Public Health Program, our primary need was to develop a unified strategy for what had until then been two very separate areas of work. To get us into the most helpful mindset I arranged a trip to an art exhibit that was focused on decolonial visions of the future (creativity, inspiration, future-focus, possibility), and organized evening drinks on a rooftop in Manhattan (to embody the idea of taking the 30,000 ft view, seeing things in perspective, getting out of the weeds). I believe this really helped us come up with what turned out to be an inspiring strategic vision, where we articulated that our focus had to be on changing unjust systems, rather than looking at specific communities as the site of problems that needed fixing.
I also like to find a range of ways for people to participate – through discussion, but also written input if they prefer, or using exercises such as drawing or envisioning, or even physical movement and role-play if appropriate and people are comfortable doing that (it can be really helpful to get people out of their heads for a bit).
This is a typical process, which would vary according to the size of organization, timeframe and specific nature of the strategy process:
Research, Listening and story gathering
Diagnostic questionnaire for leadership, to understand the key strategic questions.
Kick-off meeting with leadership to understand parameters of the strategy process, key questions and concerns, and starting aims and objectives.
Reading existing strategic materials and other relevant material.
Research on the context of the organization’s work.
Holding in-person listening sessions.
Interviewing and surveying leadership, staff, beneficiaries, and other stakeholders, both in-person and virtually. This would include elicitation of personal stories that illustrate individuals’ connections to the organization, its work, and its impact. Depending on organization size this could range from 5 to 20 people.
Write up key points and observations and highlight key stories.
Based on the results of the research, listening and story gathering, facilitate strategic deliberations involving participants identified by leadership. Working with the key points and observations that have emerged from the first phase, the aim of these meetings is to confirm areas of clarity, further clarify key stories about the organization, its stakeholders, and its North Star, and to deliberate over areas of tensions and uncertainty.
Based on these deliberations I would then present a proposed draft strategy to the decision-makers, outlining any areas where outstanding decisions needed to be made.
Discussion and revision of strategy.
Write up Strategy
Write up the draft strategy document and present it to leadership ahead of the agreed deadline. Format to be agreed in discussion with the client.
Strategy Implementation and Learning/Assessment Process
Advise and consult as the staff and leadership think about how to implement the new strategy, including developing implementation timeline and benchmarks, and manageable and effective tools and processes for monitoring progress and assessing effectiveness.
Can take from 2 to 6 months depending on the organization