1. Intent focused
2. A systems perspective
3. Thinking in Time
4. Intelligent Opportunism
These are the five elements that make up strategic thinking as described by Dr. Jeanne M. Liedtka, a faculty member at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business and former chief learning officer at United Technologies Corporation.
At some point in every Batman comic book, tv show, or movie, Batman retires to the giant batcave under his mansion. And in his “Batcave” he refuels the Batmobile, he gets some food from Alfred the Butler, he uses the giant Batcomputer, maybe he runs some tests in the Batlabratory or synthesizes some antidote.
All of this leads to some massive revelation that refocuses the World’s Greatest Detective on the challenge presented to him in that issue/episode/film. It’s usually the breakthrough moment in the story. Everything else from that point on is Batman winning unreservedly.
No one in Gotham ever sees this. To them, Batman is the Caped Crusader running around at night responding to the Bat Signal and being a superhero. There’s no boring laboratory Batman, or Batman hunched in a desk chair flipping through databases. Batman is all action and impact, and the strategy and thought are invisible. They don’t see the most important part, they only see the outcome.
Why am I talking about Batman on a blog that’s meant largely for nonprofits and consultants?
We get into charity work to make the difference, to be heroes in our own way. There aren’t superheroes in real life, there’s only advocates and activists and dreamers. We see these people making their difference, and many of us jump in with both feet expecting to make the same difference. And many of us fail.
It’s because we don’t put the time into building our Batcaves. The part people see is only half the work. As much, if not more, time and resources go into the Batcave as the crime-fighting. If you want to be smart, if you want to be performing your mission for years to come, you need a database. An Alfred to fuel up the Batmobile. The place where you examine and reevaluate your strategy.
You need a Batcave.
“You’re a strategic planning consultant? You must use Drucker’s Five Most Important Questions a lot.”
Sinking feeling. As I stood by the grill with a beer in my hand at a recent summer party, I couldn’t come up with even one of his apparently essential strategic questions
I mentioned some of the business thinkers we often draw on, like Jim Collins and Peter Block. My new friend nodded politely, but I was clearly speaking to a Drucker man. He told me how Drucker’s business frameworks had guided his successful career as a manager. How they were now helping him transform the effectiveness of the nonprofit board he served on.
I was eager to learn more when I got back to the office. Amazon is taking its sweet time delivering Drucker’s book, but in the meantime here are Drucker’s Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask Your Nonprofit Organization:
What is your mission?
Who is your customer?
What does your customer value?
What are your results?
What is your plan?
These are all questions we ask and answer in the course of strategic planning with our clients, although not in Drucker’s specific terms.
For instance, the word “customer” was once a refreshing shock to nonprofit sensibilities, a challenge to those who automatically disdained commerce and marketing. Later on, calling donors and clients “customers” became a cliché. When a useful term becomes a buzzword, it shuts down the good thinking it once may have stimulated.
But it’s been a while since Drucker’s heyday and “customer” seems to have dropped out of frequent use in the nonprofit world. So, maybe it’s time to bring the “customer” back into our strategic discussions.
In any case, I’m glad to be challenged to learn more about the amazing Peter Drucker and I’m looking forward to learning more about his Five Questions.
- A compelling vision of change. First and foremost, of how the world, your community will be different.
- The way. While setting an inspirational and meaningful goal is critical, without articulating your path to that goal you’ll not really being strategic, are you?
- The will. While plans are more than paper and the planning process itself should unleash new understanding and meaning, you have to believe enough in what you’ve committed to to start acting on your strategy in all you do.
- Leadership. This may or may not be a proverb, but I love this saying “the community goat starves to death.” Someone has to take ownership of the plan to move it forward. Hopefully, that’s your board. And your CEO. And each and every person in the organization.
- Courage. You’ve probably made some big stretches in your plan. To quote Francis Perkins:
“Most of man’s problems upon this planet, in the long history of the race, have been met and solved either partially or as a whole by experiment based on common sense and carried out with courage.”
If you are starting your strategic planning, here are a few other tips for you:
At the center of strategic planning is the commitment to community outcomes or mission-based objectives. These objectives are backed up by a clear-headed understanding of the dynamics of the world you exist in, a thoughtful and evidence-based strategy for executing programs (or an experiment that you’ll learn from) and a plan for building the operational capacity and strategic partnerships that are your best shot at reaching those objectives.
If ever there was a book that could help improve strategic planning, it’s Decisive, How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work.
According to the book, our usual process looks like this:
- We encounter a choice.
- We analyze our options.
- We make a choice.
- Then we live with it.
This sounds logical and familiar. Most of us would pat ourselves on the back for being so rational.
The problem, as the Heath’s point out, is that there is a fatal flaw at each stage:
- Narrow framing makes us miss other options when we encounter a choice.
- Confirmation bias makes us gather self-serving information.
- Short term emotions often tempt us into making the wrong choice.
- We’re overconfident about how the future will unfold and stick to one path once we’ve made our choice.
Luckily, the Heath’s suggest four strategies to counteract your biases. They sum them up in the acronym, WRAP: Read more
What leads to success in getting help from others? A well-defined question or set of questions, a spirit of sharing, careful planning so time is well-spent, an interesting group that also benefits from coming together, commitment to listening and learning, a focus on improvement, reciprocating and appreciating the extraordinary gift you’ve received. Oh yes, you also have to ask.
“It’s really not that complicated. The creative process is trying really hard to solve a problem.”
Isn’t that the essence of strategic planning?
While our missions aren’t necessarily problems, the goal of getting from where we are today to realizing our mission can be seen as a big puzzle that we are trying to solve. (Puzzle = problem). Whether we’re ending homelessness, or ensuring our kids graduate from school ready for success in life, or challenging and inspiring others through art – we are all seeking the best path to achieve our mission.
I was recently agreeing with a colleague that different types of consolidations, such as parent/ subsidiary arrangements or the development of management service organizations, offered more opportunities for nonprofits to increase time and energy devoted to mission while improving the quality of financial and administrative services, and maybe even reducing costs (or at the very least, decreasing inefficient or ineffective deployment of skills to task).
Barely do I hang up the phone when another colleague forwards a copy of David LaPiana’s latest article, Merging Wisely, published in Stanford Social Innovation Review.
CDCs rock! Many of these community benefit nonprofits take big risks to create healthy, safe, affordable homes and rebuild neighborhoods. You can read more about the history and work of CDCs in Comeback Cities, by Paul Grogan now the CEO of The Boston Foundation.
When CDCs work well, they demonstrate what is right with this sector. They are embedded in community, asking questions, responding to need, engaging residents. They exemplify the word partnership, making change happen through a complicated set of relationships and interactions with national powerhouses like Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and NeighborWorks(R) America, local for-profit lenders, public planning departments, sister organizations, community members, local public servants like the police, and more.
I’m in awe of their knowledge, commitment and ability to make big change happen.
I’m singing the praises of CDCs coming off five hours yesterday facilitating a strategic planning retreat with the Board and staff of Community Works Rhode Island, an affiliate of NeighborWorks America.
Staff and board committees have been meeting and thinking over the last few months and this was an opportunity to come together and synthesize the work that has been done to date. For me, it is always a pleasure to work with caring, really smart, fun and engaged boards and staff, so thank you.
And WOW for their commitment — meeting together on a Friday afternoon till 8:00 in the evening. (I don’t know about you, but I do my best to avoid work on Friday nights).
There are a still a few more details before the plan is finished, but this organization already knows how to think and act strategically which is what ultimately matters.
Did I mention Community Work’s commitment to change that transforms communities? That word, transform, is in their mission statement and they take it seriously.
What’s as impressive is that this organization is the child of a recent merger between the Elmwood Foundation and Greater Elmwood Neighborhood Services. Based in the Elmwood neighborhood of Providence, both CDCs have worked in Providence’s Southside for more than 30 years, creating close to 1,000 units of affordable housing and investing more than $60 million in the community. Kudos once again to my friend and colleague MJ Kaplan of Kaplan Consulting LLC for guiding these groups through the merger and for lining up a really stellar board.
Next for me, typing up those flip charts (not my favorite task) and merging all the details on paper into a written framework that reflects all the smart and truly strategic thinking that went on last night. Then guiding this phase of planning to its conclusion.