Upon learning that his possible death had been incorrectly reported, Mark Twain famously responded, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
It is popular now to say that strategic planning is dead—that the world is changing so fast, even a three-year plan is unrealistic. In 1994, Professor Henry Mintzberg published The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, and ushered in a steady stream of books and articles on the topic, including SSIR’s 2013 article “The Strategic Plan Is Dead. Long Live Strategy.”
These claims are an exaggeration.
It is true that times have changed and tools must change to match the times. But the contention that change renders strategic planning dead is based on three faulty assumptions.
Faulty assumption #1: Strategic plans are static and preclude adaptive leadership.
I have never met a nonprofit leader who, having developed a strategic plan, felt hampered in their ability to make needed changes. Nonprofit leaders are typically visionaries and entrepreneurial—they have to be, because they are literally working to change the world. Just as organizations draft annual or bi-annual budgets and absolutely expect that they will not be perfect predictions of the future, these leaders expect that future events will confound some of the assumptions in their completed strategic plans. The strategic plan is alive—and it is a living document when used.
Part of the challenge of formulating a plan is that some problems don’t yet have solutions. In research published in 2002, Ronald Heifetz called these “adaptive problems,” as distinguished from technical problems. Adaptive problems have no known solutions, and we need creative and collaborative actions to solve them. But many problems nonprofits face have at least some known solutions that they can plan for and manage, and strategic plans often include a commitment to ongoing exploration of adaptive problems.
Rather than abandon strategic planning to deal with adaptive problems, leadership expert John Kotter argues for a “dual operating system.” In his 2012 Harvard Business Review article “Accelerate!”, Kotter describes working to help businesses address emergent challenges and opportunities, with a dedicated, internally run system of invention to complement ongoing planning and management practices. Many nonprofits use variations on this idea as a way to handle these types of issues to complement strategic planning.
Faulty assumption #2: Strategic plans are futile because the future is impossible to predict.
The work of nonprofits is to create change, not simply respond to it. Those who argue that strategic plans are futile assert that organizations should do “continuous” strategy assessment. In the recent Wall Street Journal and Washington Post bestseller Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works, authors A.G. Lafley and Roger Martin respond to proponents of this argument, who “deny that long-term (or even medium-term) strategy is possible. ... Emergent strategy has become the battle cry of many technology firms and startups, which do indeed face a rapidly changing marketplace. Unfortunately, such an approach places a company in a reactive mode, making it easy prey for more-strategic rivals.”
Execution requires plans, but what if the environment in which people work changes dramatically over a short period of time?
The San Diego Museum of Art completed a five-year strategic plan in June 2008, with a bold vision and strategy for becoming a truly international museum. The plan addressed slower-moving external changes in the demographics of visitors, art viewing preferences, and sources of competition; it also called for major capital investments. Three months later, Lehman Brothers collapsed and the Great Recession began. The museum’s endowment shrank rapidly, and the prospect of attracting significant new gifts disappeared. Rather than abandon its strategic plan as useless, the museum used the plan to help navigate its way through one of the most challenging financial periods of the last several decades. The timing of different initiatives changed, but because it had already made difficult choices about how to pursue its goals, the strategic plan continued to inform its operational decision-making and management. Eight years later, the museum has fully implemented its plan and is thriving as never before.
Contracts with foundations, governments, and businesses are based on multi-year plans with deliverables—not just strategy, and 30-year mortgages remain the norm in residential real estate. While the world changes, people continue to make long-term plans. Why should nonprofit management be exempt from long-term commitments?
Faulty assumption #3: Strategic plans are irrelevant because some strategic plans have been seen to sit on shelves “gathering dust.”
Strategic planning is difficult and sometimes not done well. The process requires an investment of time and money, skilled and meaningful leadership, a willingness to make difficult decisions, and the stamina to articulate the operational implications of an inspiring vision. A bad plan, or a badly executed one, is not valuable—no argument—but the same could be said of the ineffective use of any management tool.
Strategic planning is alive and well. The 2014 Bridgespan Group Nonprofit Management and Trends Report showed that 89 percent of nearly 500 nonprofit leader survey respondents used strategic planning. Strategic planning also received the second-highest level of satisfaction (80 percent) of the 25 management tools evaluated. And a recent national study by the Association of Strategic Planning of more than 1,000 US nonprofits found that the more effective an organization considered itself, the more value it reported getting from strategic planning.
It is also worth noting that the art of strategic planning in the nonprofit sector has not stood still. Without a doubt, the practice has become more sophisticated and nuanced over the past few decades, as the demand for improved organizational performance and the quality of available tools has increased, and it will continue to evolve.
Moving from doing good work to doing great work demands both strategy and plans to guide execution. While nonprofits need to adapt their specific path (the plan) as they go, a clear vision supported by a strategic plan will endure and help organizations successfully navigate changing conditions.