January 6th, 2015

Metal Bird With Long neck Circled BackThe beginning of the year is, for many, a natural time of reflection and planning, a time to look back on the challenges and successes of the previous year and to set goals for the one to come. For organizations too, the end of the year can be a chance to reflect and plan—to take the strategic plan off the shelf and recommit to putting it into action. Three elements are necessary: clear directionalignment, and action. If your strategic plan has gotten a bit dusty, read on for a straightforward blueprint for brushing it off and putting it to use.

Look Back to Move Forward
The Akan people of West Africa have a proverb, symbolized in the Sankofa bird: “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” The word Sankofa means, literally, “Go back and get it.”

Before you can begin finding the direction, alignment, and empowerment necessary to recommitting to your strategic plan, the first step is to go back and take the plan off of the shelf where it is sitting. This is not a metaphor — take a break from the year-end wrap up work you are doing, stand up, and pull the binder off of the shelf. Dust it off, take a deep breath, and put it on your desk. Don’t worry if you’ve pushed it aside for weeks, months, or even a year. This small move can remind you to take time to refocus on what is important.

A strategic plan plays three main functions.  The first of these is to define your direction — the purpose, mission, vision, and goals your organization is striving for. As the Cheshire Cat told Alice, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”

So once you have pulled your plan off of the shelf, it is time to reread it and become clear about the direction you will take in implementing it. Consider asking yourself the following questions:

  • Does our plan still describe the direction we are actually going?
  • Are we clear about what it will look like when we achieve our vision?
  • Reading between the lines of our goals and strategies, what are the values they reflect? Do these jibe with the values we want to manifest?
  • Are these goals still a good fit for what our beneficiaries need? Do we need to drop or add any goals?
  • Have we made progress toward our goals? How can we celebrate that?
  • What do we still need to do? What gaps still exist?
  • What are the shorter-term milestones or objectives we need to set to guide us toward those goals?

Strategic planning also serves to align and put all your stakeholders on the same page, both internally (staff, board) and externally (funders, donors, partners, clients, etc.). By wrestling through the hard questions — What do we really want to accomplish? How can we make it a reality? What matters most to us? — your leaders engage in what the authors of Governance as Leadership call the generative mode of governance. Generative conversations help build shared values, shared definitions, shared mental models, and a greater understanding of each participant’s role and contribution to making the plan a reality.

But if that generative thinking isn’t made a regular practice, it can easily fade into a distant memory as new people join the board or staff and new challenges arise.  And as those shared definitions fade, people can easily start pulling in different directions, disagreeing about where you’re going and how to get there. Worse yet, those differences often go unspoken, laying just below the surface where they pop up at the most inappropriate times and in destructive ways. On the board, that can look like micromanagement of staff, political infighting or back-room decision-making, or petty bickering over seeming unrelated and inconsequential issues. Ultimately, the result is often disengagement by board members.  On the staff side this also looks like a lack of direction, with employees’ performance objectives disconnected from organizational priorities, managers falling into silos or turf wars, and poor morale as staff lose touch with the relevance of their work to the organization’s longer-term vision.

Make time and space over the coming weeks to prompt some reflection with your board and staff:

  • How do we feel about our strategic direction? Do we even remember it? Are we still committed to it?
  • Do we have shared definitions for our most important concepts?
  • Do both staff and board have a sense of the big picture for how their daily activities contribute to our strategies? How those strategies advance the mission?
  • Do your board and staff each understand how they add unique value to that bigger picture?
  • How can we better align our budget with our strategic goals? (This may include cutting back in some areas, not just increasing resources.)

Last but not least, strategic plans are ultimately about taking action — about bringing energy and resources to bear on creating real change in the world.  Empowerment is about helping people take ownership of manageable parts of the plan, and giving them the tools they need to succeed. Many organizations are challenged with accountability, yet in our experience people can only be held accountable for actions they are empowered and consciously commit to take on. This includes defining the knowledge, information, technology, skills, support they need to do their job. And perhaps most importantly, it means conferring autonomy and authority because responsibility without the decision-making power is a setup for failure.

So now that your team has refreshed its goals and realigned around them, ask yourself. For these questions, it is important to be as specific as possible:

  • What actions will bring the most “bang for the buck” in advancing our strategic objectives?
  • When will each piece be completed? What needs to happen first to enable or facilitate other things?
  • Who will be accountable for making sure each project or task is completed? Who is the supporting or collaborating team with them?
  • What resources, tools, and authority will they need to succeed?
  • How do the different activities affect one another? How can we build processes of communication and coordination so we can harmonize and support each other?
  • How can we motivate staff and board to see themselves as capable?
  • How can we celebrate tasks we complete and recognize the team members who made them possible?

2015 can be the year your organization breathes new life into its strategic plan. Like the Sankofa, your organization can fly forward while remembering the best of what past planning, reflection, and knowledge have created.

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