Making Strategy Happen

By Jack Shand. CAE, CMC

The value in planning is not in creating strategy but in implementing it. The purpose of planning includes seeing the positive, tangible results accruing to the organization by instituting and achieving strategic change.

Yet too many organizations see their planning process fail. The strategic plan sits ignored on a bookshelf; the volunteers and staff involved lament the wasted money and lost time in a failed process, understandably reluctant to repeat the same experience again.

Reg Watts, my consulting colleague at LeaderQuest, developed with me the principal reasons why an organization's investment in strategic planning fails. These are important insights for not-for-profit organization leaders.

We have observed that these factors must be taken into account if plans are to be implemented successfully:

1. Be in touch with members (or stakeholders). Typically, the team developing an organization's plan will be the board of directors and key staff.

What information is the planning team using to base their strategic decision-making? It is important to not only rely upon member-leaders and staff for information on what is happening and what is most important to a constituency. It is member research which enables the leaders to identify what matters most to the people you serve. The research should identify what's important to members, and how well the organization is seen to be performing.

2. Agreement to the future course of action. Where there is no consensus to act, a lack of commitment to implement quickly follows. Consensus is not unanimous agreement. Consensus is effectively agreeing that we will support the decision and can live with it.

3. Realistic planning. The strategic plan may be unachievable, which when recognized as such by volunteers or employees, leads to resistance to set themselves up for failure.

4. Resource limitations. A real advantage of strategic planning is that it helps leaders to identify what is most important - the priorities. However, too often, we see strategic plans that require resources that simply do not exist and probably never will.

5. Communication. It is important to tell people why you are creating a plan and that you are committed to achieving the plan. Also, it is important to explain what you are committed to doing, and then what you've accomplished. If people have a role in implementation, clearly communicate the expectations and resources available, and then recognize and celebrate results.

6. Be patient. A bold new plan may require changes to structure, to processes, and to job responsibilities. It may be necessary to create a timetable to allow for a transition period to the new way of doing things. People need time to change, they need positive reinforcement, and they need to understand the value of the exercise (e.g., and not just how the organization will improve, but also "what's in it for me" as a volunteer or employee). In time, a discipline of planning will become ingrained.

7. Flexibility to allow for change. A strategic plan should not be presented as "tablets of stone." In late 2008 and into 2009, some organizations abandoned relatively new plans as the effects of the recession became apparent. This also happened to some sectors after 9-11 due to new travel realities and security changes. The assumptions, forecasts, and strategies had to be revisited, and in many cases changed, after these major events. Planners cannot predict the future, but they can plan for change by ensuring that all plans are flexible and adaptable.

8. Select a champion to drive the implementation process. The champion could be an officer or another influential board member who has the respect and attention of other volunteers; a strategic thinker who understands the value of planning, who is directly involved in helping create the plan, and who can positively redirect resistance. This person will be a team motivator, ensuring the investment in planning pays dividends through an organization-wide, systemic approach to implementation. The executive director also has a leadership role to play to ensure all activities are aligned with the strategic plan and people doing the work are supported.

9. Ownership of the to-do list. When an individual's name is assigned to the action item, they own the task. A caution here is to resist assigning responsibility for the deliverable to a group such as a committee. The committee may well have to work together to achieve the result, but it is preferable to identify an individual (e.g., the committee chair) as the one responsible for the outcome. However, it is important to involve all committee members in some way so they feel their views have been taken into account, and they are not being "voluntold" how to implement the strategy.

10. Equip the implementers with tools to promote their success. In some cases the organization may have to invest in training so employees and volunteers develop the skills they need to accomplish the plan. In our strategic planning work Leader Quest has resources the board and/or executive director will provide to volunteers such as draft templates for committees on how to interpret a strategic plan and incorporate its priorities into their annual committee action plan. The organization's board and/or staff leaders must also meet with each committee chair or committee to start appropriate support plans for those aspects of the strategic plan the committee will implement. The same approach will apply to staff (e.g., department heads) with the executive director coaching them to ensure they have the information required to effectively implement those aspects of the plan assigned to them.

11. Temper ambition. A new three-year plan should be exciting and may well be intimidating! Start the implementation journey by concentrating on creating and achieving the first year action plan only. What are the decisions, actions, changes, and resources required to move this plan forward in year one? Remember to set priorities, ensure the resources are in place, and assign responsibility so the action item is owned by the person, or people, who will carry it out.

12. Unfavourable personal consequences. This risk arises from points 10 and 11. Expectations are high enough in not-for-profit organizations. When a strategic plan places unreasonable demands on the implementation team, such as working excessive hours or creating open conflict with stakeholders because of an outcome the plan is requiring (such as a confrontation with government), staff and/or volunteers may avoid the unpleasant work.

13. Change the board's agenda and meeting focus. Every board meeting should have a progress report on implementation issues - ideally a balanced scorecard approach. This enables the directors to discuss what new strategic issues have emerged which may require the plan to be adapted to the new reality. Too many board meetings focus on reports which detail what has happened and therefore cannot be changed. While every board must have oversight and monitor the plan's status, better governance practice ensures that boards are also focused on the future, adapting plans as necessary, and discussing strategy at every opportunity.

14. Keep the plan front and centre. Put the mission statement on business cards. Have a poster with the critical success factors and performance measures prominently displayed in the office. Bring the current annual plan and a scorecard to each staff, committee, and board meeting. Often if these conditions are overlooked the plan will experience less than perfect execution. If you have had problems in implementing plans in the past, then look at the above points and ask yourself whether or not if any were the cause.

Content is © Jack Shand and is reprinted with permission.