Time for a No-Fault Divorce from Your Strategic Plan?
Updated: Sep 23
Marisa Guerin, PhD – September 22, 2020
In the last six months, I’ve had several conversations with colleagues about how their organizations have been brought to a screeching halt or turned topsy-turvy by the coronavirus pandemic and the social turmoil of these times. As they confided their worries about whether they can possibly get back on track with their goals and priorities, I have found myself saying to them: “Maybe it’s time for a ‘no-fault divorce’ from your organization’s strategic plan.” Their response is always the same – first, they exclaim a relieved “Yes!” – and then they ask, with some hesitation, “Is that a legitimate option?” I think they ask this because they are conscientious people, intensely focused on restoring the operations, programs, and services that used to define their organization.
But here’s the problem: whether the pandemic has had a positive impact on the enterprise (for example, the surge in demand for bike shops or delivery services or garden supplies) or a negative impact (for example, the restrictions on restaurants, theaters, the travel industry, schools, and small retail businesses), the reality is that nothing will be exactly the same as it was for a long time, and some organizations will fail entirely or be totally transformed.
In these first months of coping, it makes all the sense in the world that the priorities of leaders have been focused and urgent. Executive Directors of nonprofit social service organizations have scrambled to figure out how to keep serving needy clients, how to work safely and mostly virtually, how to access enough loans, donations, or special grants to make payroll. Retreat centers, conference services, arts organizations and professional groups have pivoted to virtual events, learning on the fly and hoping to bridge the gap until “normal” might return. Businesses have furloughed or laid off long time workers, and many have made significant changes to their business models and newly-critical digital capacities.
All of these enterprises are fiercely coping with a volatile situation. If there was a strategic plan on the shelf in the office of the CEO or the Executive Director, it might as well be written in a foreign language. In any case, it’s probably the last thing on the mind of most leaders in the immediate urgency of surviving. But at some point, if the organization hasn’t succumbed to the stresses, it will be necessary to take stock of the fundamentals. To steer the organization out of a crisis and onto some firmer ground, the senior team and Board should ask the questions that deal with its mission and strategy:
Is our mission still valid? What is our formula for success, now? Do we see a way forward? Are any of our original assumptions about our business environment and our operations still true? Are our strengths still relevant in a drastically different competitive field? What do we WANT to be? What CAN we be? How can we stabilize and thrive? Is it time to face the end of our story, or a significant change in our identity and purpose?
These questions should feel real, not like a perfunctory exercise in hypotheticals. The answers may not be immediately obvious. It will take some observation, some data gathering, some hard thinking. If formerly competitive organizations have gone under, there may be an unexpected opportunity to expand the mission and scale of the enterprise. On the other hand, if the market served has shrunk or vanished, no amount of tweaking the revenue model or expense-cutting is going to succeed, at least not without a major shift in what is offered, and how. New assumptions will need testing. Can a formerly “in-person” service model still work if it must remain virtual for months? What new needs have arisen? Would new partnerships or alliances make more sense now than they might have before?
When leaders start asking these questions, they have embarked on the work of strategic planning -- maybe not the ritualistic and time-consuming exercise that often passes for it, but rather the substantive, cut-to-the-chase articulation of what the organization is intending to do, and why and how it expects to succeed in its mission.
At its simplest, a strategy is the organization’s theory for success, based on analysis and data. It isn’t simply a wish, an untethered vision, or a founder’s passion. When it is done carefully, a strategic plan lays out the road map for the business or the nonprofit organization, representing an agreement by the major stakeholders about the mission and value proposition of the organization, what its critical priorities are, and how they will be addressed over a time period of years.
So: if you realize it is time to take a fresh look and review the strategic underpinnings of your enterprise, how could you begin? There may not be time or capacity for the normal processes of planning, but if you gather the right (small) group of people to start the conversation, these are the topics you might start with.
1. Mission – (I’m using this word to mean purpose, identity, reason-for-being.) Take a clear-eyed look at the mission, not for the purpose of word-smithing the statement, but to assess whether it is something the world still needs, something the organization’s sponsors and staff are still committed to, something that is possible to sustain. Then, re-commit to the mission, or change it in some way, or acknowledge that it is time to lay it down for good. It may sound like a straightforward set of choices, but I know that this can be a very painful discernment. Ask one another the very basic question – Do we still have a compelling reason to exist?
2. Value Proposition – Take a rigorous look at the context of the organization – its “competitive” environment, the other options your clients or users have to meet their needs. Do you think you have a sustainable offer to those you serve, unique enough to make them choose you? (Follow link to my blogpost on SWOT analysis, where I describe how to do this with discipline, not as a wishful exercise.)
3. Capabilities – Check that there is still a logic-chain (or make a new one) that connects your programs and services with your capacities and resources. In the present, not-normal world, can you still provide your clients with the products, programs, or services that they value with the staff, budget, physical facilities, and technologies that you have? If there is a mismatch, what will you do about it? Is the new way of working just for this emergency, or is it the way of the future? What new capabilities do you need, which prior ones are no longer relevant? How does this impact your staff, your budget, your technologies and systems?
4. Priority Goals – Based on these prior considerations, figure out a list of about 3-6 critical priorities for the successful implementation of your strategy. Maybe they have to do with increasing an essential capability, or developing a new, adjacent market or product line, or overhauling some aspect of your infrastructure. Whatever they are, make sure one of them reflects the always-urgent need to keep your operations going effectively and efficiently, so that there is a balance between energy that is going to building for the future, and energy that is needed for sustaining. A correctly-assessed set of priority goals will help leaders and members of an organization to focus their efforts on the right things – and on the same things, which matters a lot when all hands must be on deck.
If a set of initial conversations on these topics with a small group of staff or Board members enables you to sketch out a picture showing how you can survive, or heal, or change, then you may want to enlarge the circle of those engaged in the discussions to get the full benefit of other perspectives and information. The result can be a newly-focused strategy, or at least a provisional path that can get you through the coming months with an eye on the mission and vision to which you are committed.