My favorite addition to our household in 2013 was the Present. A time piece that makes a single circumnavigation of a colored clock face representing each season. Indecipherable movements mark each day but after a week away you notice time has elapsed. Almost suddenly the white of the Winter Solstice is abandoned for the blue hues of proper winter. Resolutions made in the brief white stripe of New Years are forgotten for old habits.
I use the clock for a strategic planning exercises. What do you want to accomplish during the Present’s next trip(s) around? What actions do you need to take? Who do you need to engage? Where do you need to travel? Where does your focus need to land? What will it feel like to have completed the circle and be forever changed?
So often we bemoan the lack of time available to concentrate on that which fulfills us. Obligations obscure the summit we set out to climb. Disorientation comes easily. Thinly anchored obstacles appear impassable. Stamina wanes. We get bored, discouraged, or scared and sit to rest. We have three hundred and sixty five opportunities to progress towards that which will forever alter our remarkable narrative.
What is waiting for you?
Strategic planning can be received with the same enthusiasm as keeping school open when it snows five inches.
Great strategic planning discussions generate unbridled enthusasim and clarity about expectations for the future. Commit to a peak that is worthy of climbing. The alternative is not to plan and react to forces that do not have your best interest at heart.
The default setting for avoiding strategic planning is to place your fate in this oracle of wisdom.
Will Novy-Hildesley and Heather McLeod-Grant introduced planning tactics around Adaptive Strategies for The New Normal. Participants completed a quick and easy to follow workshop on planning for the future by answering the following questions.
- Core: What are the six words (preference for verbs over nouns) that describe your organization. Now underline the top three. Finally, circle the single word that best describes your cause. Is it authentic? Does it resonate? Words like inspire, empower, engage are used by many organizations and may hard to serve as differentiators. Consider a word that is unique. This word represents your purpose or core belief.
- Explore: Using the example of bouldering in the sport of rock climbing the presenters illustrated the importance of having a proving grounds. Bouldering allows climbers to fail repeatedly due to low heights and the presence of padding for crash landings. This form of practice has transformed the routes being climbed on the bigger rock faces because climbers have found a safer place to fail as they prepare. What initiative could your organization attempt that will transform your journey even if you fail repeatedly at the start?
- Connect: Who do you need to connect with that is outside your current sector/area of expertise? Example, Boise State Football Coach Chris Petersen exchanges leadership ideas with other leaders in a group called “The Gang.” The members come from diverse sectors but each is uniquely positioned to talk about leadership.
- Evolve: What specifically will your organization look like when it reaches it next level of excellence? Will their be wait lists to serve on the board? Will model the Zappoos strategy of paying people to not take a job if they have any reservations after orientation? Will your organization be branded as the leader within your sector? Will your vision be met? This is your strategic focus.
Sterling Speirn, the CEO of the Kellogg Foundation gave the keynote talk. He had insightful observations for funders and the nonprofit community.
- Be willing to hold board/staff meetings where there is no decision-making or votes. Have a generative conversation about “what-if?” Focus on sensemaking, not decision-making.
- When does counting people change to people counting?
- Do not be so quick to limit an initiative to a time and dollar cap (e.g. 5 years of funding and $500,000). Commit to a problem until it is solved or be willing to be involved for a generation.
- His mantra as the new CEO years ago, ‘I did not come here to change the foundation, I came here to change the world.’
- Be willing to challenge the sentiment, “change is great, you go first.”
Travelled to a city or place that has more ‘must see venues’ than times allows you to visit? Then you have experienced strategic planning. Want to visit the leading cultural sites in your desired location then research the top rated museums. Desire a taste of the nation, work the restaurant guides and food blogs. A thrill seeking bent will keep one on the scent of wild rides and adrenaline drops. Anytime there is more opportunity than our bandwidth can absorb, we plan. We select the ‘must visit’ locals and start reversen engineering our schedule to accomodate our choices. We chart our days, perhaps leaving gaps for serendipity and getting lost but with focus on the central goal of each day.
Strategic planning is the opportunity to select which trips you wish to take over a fixed time. Each time you get closer to departing on an upcoming adventure you assemble the details, such as airline tickets, hotel reservations, museum passes. This is equivalent to the annual operating plan of an organization. You engage experts like travel agent, guide, or the chat forums for advise, recommendations, and reassurances.
We establish travel strategy screens to help assess opportunities that present themselves in real-time. If you are a lover of trains and the Glacier Express happens to run while you are in Switzerland, I imagine you might adjust your trip around its itinerary.
The big question is where do you want to go in the next ten or twenty years? Which continents, countries, cities, galaxies? Could select one or two that rise to the top of your priority list? Are there three steps you could take today to start making a trip a reality? What do you value most when you travel and would be willing to adjust your plans to accomodate?
The answers to the above questions is the basis of all strategic, operational, and strategy screen planning. We do it all the time. It does not need to be complicated and labored. If it is not worth the rewards of exploration, why start?
I read a LinkedIn post calling for simplified versions of Strategic Planning. One contributor referenced their book, The Six Hour Strategic Plan, which offers fascinating approaches. The barrier to simplifying any process is that one must draw a boundary and eliminate the infinite possibilities. If we took note of every individual’s story in the above painting that hangs in the Louvre, the task would be laborious But if you know that you are seeking those in a starring role who sit on the stage, the story-gathering is more focused.
Remarkably there can be clarity. The real challenge is knowing what you believe and how you can deepen your connection. Then you can work on the pathway to reach them. The ridiculous part in this methodology is being willing to ignore everyone else, no how compelling their narratives.
You can achieve the same strategic goals of planting a forest during a 15-year strategic plan by taking action in year one or year fourteen. The only difference is the impact of the goal. The action taken in year one has fourteen years to mature and become viable. The seedlings planted in the last year of the plan are juvenile and yet to take root. Their impact is yet to be discovered.
The importance of sequencing and timing makes me wonder about educational funding. We can invest heavily in early start and preschool initiatives that provide young children with plenty of support when they are in the most formative phase of development (seedlings) and then shape their educational growth as they reach the high school grade level (pruning phase). But if we wait to add the greatest support (richest soils and nutrients) until a students has reached the upper grades then we have essentially missed the chance to grow a forest. Timing and prioritization effect some strategies more than other. I would suggest that leaving our best cultivation efforts and deepest investments for the later stages of the educational timeline results in the ultimate dustbowl.
If a visitor asked you where you enterprise was headed over the next ten years, could you tell them?
The brilliance of this camera is that you can go back and adjust the focal point after you have taken the picture. We usually get the right subject matters in the frame but we do not always focus on the intended object. It is a great metaphor for organizational planning. Can the enterprise maintain flexibility to refocus on a priority that may have not been immediately identified during the planning process? Said differently, how does your cause maintain the dexterity to focus on the right priorities in a timely manner?
Take a lesson from Thomas Jefferson on strategic planning. He completed the Louisiana Purchase and then sent the Corps of Discovery to the region to map and document the new territory. President Jefferson directed Lewis and Clark into the wilderness with a scientific and commercial purpose. He did not micromanage and the corps was out of touch while on its mission for two-years. Jefferson had the vision and then empowered his agents to make it a reality. Perhaps this was the equivalent of John F Kennedy’s vision of a man on the moon. Set the goal and allows those with the right talents to map the course.
How often do you plan? Once or twice a year? Do you focus on the process or the actual plan?