Choose Your Own Adventure: 5 Steps to a Sustainable Strategic Plan

Choose Your Own Adventure: 5 Steps to a Sustainable Strategic Plan

Photo Credit: Credit to Sharon Fullerton Photography.

Life is like a “choose your own adventure” book.

With each choice we make, our adventure changes. With one big difference. In a “choose your own adventure” book, we don’t know where the decisions will lead us (unless we look at the end). But in real life, we’re pretty good at anticipating consequences – if we think of it. It’s one of the things that makes us human.

Consider – if you look backward, you can probably describe the path that led you to live where you live, work where you work, love whom you love. Hindsight makes the path easy to see.  Moment after moment you made choices – consciously or unconsciously – and each choice created the possibility of making the next choice.

Each moment is the result of all the moments that came before. As Hildy Gottlieb wrote in The Pollyanna Principles: Each and every one of us is creating the future, every day, whether we do so consciously or not.

We can choose our own adventure when we plan for the future.

Not only can we anticipate the consequences of a particular choice, we can reverse engineer the future we want, imagine the steps that led us there, and consciously use those steps to build a path to that desired future. We can imagine we are standing in that future, and use imaginary hindsight to recount how it happened.

What about Strategic Planning?

In an organization, reverse engineering is tailor made for strategic planning. Here are the five steps:

  1. Gather all the people who have a stake in your future – board, staff, volunteers, clients, supporters, funders, government – and envision the future.
  • If we are 100% successful in whatever it is we decide to do, what will be different?
  • For whom? What does that future look like? Who will be affected?

THIS is the inspiration. By envisioning the future, you inspire each member of the board, staff and community to make it a reality. What will be different because YOU exist?

Asking many people who will be affected reminds us that whatever we do is being done by – and affecting – people: clients, frontline staff, administration, community, donors, board, neighbors. This is key to the success of the plan. Think about how difficult change is for some people. It’s often because the people who were planning didn’t include and get buy-in from the different people who would be affected.

  1. Consider what needs to be in place for that future to be a reality.
  • What do each of these ‘whoms’ need to know, believe, have, for you to achieve this success?
  • What needs to be in place for this plan to be successful?

Some of these are beliefs, e.g., staff and board need to believe this vision is possible. It might be knowledge, for example, staff need to know how to do the job – which itself leads to realizing that the staff will need training. It might be feelings, for example, the board needs to feel engaged in the process and willing to step out of their comfort zone — which leads to a need for board guidance. It may be legislation, like appropriate laws or appropriations, which may mean the board needs to advocate. It may be tangible things, like a building in which to work, or updated technology.

  1. Assess the resources you already have access to, and identify the resources that you don’t yet have.

Unlike traditional strategic planning, where you start by considering whether what you have are strengths or weaknesses, when you start with a vision of the future, you have something to measure your resources against. You can evaluate whether your assets are really strengths. Just because you have a great music department, if you’re trying to become a STEM resource center, it’s not necessarily an asset. Framing the question about needed resources this way, you can think of missing resources as just one more step to take on the way to the end result.

Based on our previous examples, needed resources might be time, people, faciliaties. Time for staff to be trained; time and locations for staff meetings; activists or lobbyists to advocate the legislature; a building, funds for a building, or relationships with commercial property owners.

  1. What actions do we need to take to make sure the resources are available; to ensure the things we need are in place?

Now that we know what we need, and what we have, we can figure out what we need to do. When we start with the vision, identify what needs to be in place, and assess what we already have, then it becomes obvious what actions you need to take.

For example, if legislation needs to change, then we know we need to research our legislators’ positions so we can effectively speak with them; we need to train our board members to be advocates; our staff needs to create materials to support our advocates’ work and a calendar that correlates with the legislative calendar.

Finally:

  1. Individuals accept responsibility for making sure each item gets done.

Plans without accountability – knowing who is doing what, by when – are the kinds of plans that get put on a shelf. Nice ideas, elaborate wish lists, but not truly actionable. As Tom Peters is reported to have said, What gets measured gets managed.

Complexity and Success

These five simple steps become more complex – and far more successful – as we identify more affected stakeholders. Including all the people who will be affected makes it far more likely that the needs of each will be taken into account, and no steps will be missed. You’ve looked at both external and internal conditions for success, with an emphasis on the people, rather than the things.

Congratulations! You can choose your own adventure!

What will YOUR future be?

For more tips and thoughts on nonprofit board governance, planning and facilitation, sign up at The Detwiler Group, or email Susan Detwiler directly.

Originally posted at Bloomerang.co

Boards: What headwinds are your clients facing?

Boards: What headwinds are your clients facing?

When you travel from New York to London, the shortest flight is about 6 hours and 45 minutes.  When you return, the shortest flight is an hour longer.  Flying east, we have tailwinds helping us along. Flying west, we’re pushing against headwinds.

Every time we make a plan, we’re also making assumptions. Some assumptions are simple and pretty universal – we all experience headwinds and tailwinds in flight.

But other times we are making assumptions based on our own experiences, sometimes unaware of the headwinds and tailwinds that are helping and hindering us.

For example, if you ask me how far the nearest Target store is, I’ll answer that it’s about 10 minutes from my home. Unconsciously, I’m assuming you have a car. If my neighbor doesn’t have a car, it will typically take over an hour – walk to the bus stop, take a bus several miles in the opposite direction from Target, so he can change to the bus that will take him there.

My tailwind is that I have a car and enough money to pay the insurance and fill the tank. His headwind is that he doesn’t have a car. Worse, he also has the headwind that he’s working two jobs, so the time it takes to get to Target is an even greater chunk out of his free time than it would be from mine. He’s flying west, while I’m flying east.

Estimating based on our own personal experience is natural.

It takes conscious effort to parse out the advantages and obstacles – tailwinds and headwinds – that make up our personal experience, so we can more clearly see the advantages and obstacles of others.

When we makes plans, our first inclination is to think about what works for us. What do we like, what resources do we have – time, cash, knowledge – that we can employ.  Planning based on our own experience may work if everyone is just like us – same background, same experiences, same resources.

But our clients, patrons, staff members and visitors are not all the same.

To successfully serve the community, we have to consciously find ways to understand our clients’, patrons’, staff members’ and visitors’ experiences. Not just what the headwinds (and tailwinds) are, but also their ramifications. I may have known that my neighbor didn’t have a car; that doesn’t mean I understood what the implications were when it came to shopping and the decisions they force you to make. If you have to go through that much trouble to shop at Target, then it may make sense to pay the higher prices at the local bodega. The ramifications of one situation affect the next, which affect the next.

Before digging into the myriad of experiences of clients, patrons, staff and visitors, take time to consider the headwinds you’ve encountered growing up and getting to where you are in life. Then stop and consider all the tailwinds that have helped you on your way – the mentors, the education, sustenance, the visits to cultural institutions.

Which of these are universal? Which are uniquely yours? Which make you wonder about the tailwinds and headwinds of others?

To schedule a time to explore your board and staff headwinds and tailwinds, reach Susan Detwiler at sdetwiler@detwiler.com or www.detwiler.com.

Weak Ties, Strong Boards, and Finding Resources

Weak Ties, Strong Boards, and Finding Resources

How well did you know the other people on your board before they (or you) joined?

Were you good friends? Did you live near each other? Did you work together? If you’ve read this blog for a while, you’ll probably expect me to tell you – again – that boards need diversity.  It helps with innovation, it avoids tokenism, it promotes sustainability.

I’m not the only one writing about it. Many studies, like here and here, show that diversity increases the success of a group or an organization. Whether we say we need diverse viewpoints, diverse backgrounds, diverse experiences, or diverse voices, it all translates into this: groups perform better in the long run if they are not homogeneous.

Network analysis gives us an insight into why this might be especially true when it comes to finding knowledge and resources.

Mark Granovetter posited that information flows through weak ties more than through strong ties. If you travel in the same circles and have the same friends, you are said to have strong ties with each other. If you happen to know someone whose circle is different, but don’t interact frequently with them, you are said to have weak ties.

These acquaintances are exposed to different ideas and different information than you are. So when you interact with these acquaintances, you are then exposed to new information that your strong ties do not have.  In the words of Skye Bender-deMoll,

although your close friend may work harder to help you get a new job, it is likely to be an acquaintance that actually gets you a useful lead.”

Let’s extrapolate that to your organization. If most of the board travels in the same circles, their knowledge of resources is more likely to be similar than when members of the board come from diverse communities.

But if different members of the board have different networks, they bring those networks with them when they come to the board table. Along with their different experiences, they bring different knowledge and different entrees to resources.

As boards emerge from the founding stage, they tend to seek people with ‘deep pockets,’ implying that money is the only resource that matters. However, dollars are only one kind of resource; they are often a proxy for the resources that are really needed. They seek dollars because dollars can buy the resources that are needed to fulfill the mission: staff, rent, supplies. But resources come in many forms: community good will, contacts with particular skills, potential clients, individuals with elbow grease, advocates in different communities.

In many cases, the tangible resources themselves are available, without having to expend dollars – if you have the contacts that can bring them in.

By diversifying the composition of your board, you increase the number of weak ties for your organization. Weak ties multiply the opportunities for finding and developing resources that make it possible to fulfill your mission.

Why is diversity on your board important? More voices, more viewpoints, AND MORE KNOWLEDGE AND RESOURCES.

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Can your board answer “What Is Your Organization Identity?”

Can your board answer “What Is Your Organization Identity?”

What makes you different from another institution? Why are there 5 different gardens? Why 8 different homeless shelters? Why 6 different animal welfare organizations?

What are YOU?

Can you answer that question without resorting to “we are not them?” A lot of things are not them. What are YOU?

If you can answer that question, then you can lead your institution, making decisions that affirm your identity, while discarding those that are at odds with who you are and aspire to be.

If your staff can answer that question, then your identity becomes implanted in the minds of your clients and stakeholders, because their every act reflects that conviction of who you are.

If your board can answer that question, then they can stand in front of legislators, funders, neighbors, and friends, and affirm your identity in the minds of your community.

This is who you are

It is this identity that you bring to the table when collaborating with your peers.  In collaboration, you each bring resources and skills to the table. How do your peers see themselves? What is their identity? What do they bring to the table? How are you complementary?

It is this identity that colors your pitch when you talk to government officials, about how you and your peers can work together, knowing who will bring which skills and expertise, and why each of you are necessary.

You can see this at work in America’s Garden Capital. The Philadelphia area is considered America’s Garden Capital, with more than 30 public gardens, arboreta, and historic landscapes within 30 miles of the city. They’ve joined together to promote the region, while retaining their own unique identities.  One promotes native plants; another has manicured French and English style formal gardens; another mixes outdoor sculpture with extensive grounds.

This is how you make decisions

With firm identities, they promote themselves individually and collectively, boosting their attendance.  If an opportunity comes along that doesn’t match their identity, it is easier to reject the opportunity, and actively seek more suitable opportunities. If there are five conferences to which they could send their staff, they consider which ones are most congruent with furthering their mission – the decision is easier to make. If funds are limited, they consider which capital improvement supports their identity, and decide accordingly.

Understanding what defines your organization and what you stand for is a critical foundation for decision-making. It is part and parcel of manifesting your values and priorities in the direction and actions you take. It creates a unified understanding of who you are, across board, staff, constituents and community.

Affirming this identity is integral to a solid strategic planning framework.

What’s your identity?

Why Use a Facilitator?

Why Use a Facilitator?

Board retreats, all-staff meetings, strategic planning, community convening – any time people get together to accomplish a goal, it’s important that the work gets done. 

 But getting the work of the meeting done doesn’t mean that the results of the meeting will get executed once everyone leaves. If the participants didn’t really participate, there’s a good chance they haven’t bought into the result. If the facilitator is busy worrying about running the meeting, she doesn’t have a chance to express her own views. Worse, she deliberately refrains from expressing her own views for fear of influencing the group.

 Just as important as getting the work of the retreat done, is that each participant believes in the result and can support it. An external facilitator brings important skills to the process, and makes it possible for every person in the room to participate fully.

Fresh Eyes

An external facilitator can see and hear things that have gradually become part of the organization culture, but have not been acknowledged.

Champion

An external facilitator can acknowledge the roles of each participant, without the participants having to stand up for themselves or toot their own horns. While board members and staff may be reluctant to talk about the extra burdens of a decision, a facilitator can ensure that both strengths and challenges are acknowledged.

Impartiality

An external facilitator does not have to worry about the effect of any particular discussion on themselves. By bringing objective decision-making tools to the group, facilitators acknowledge, and then mitigate, emotion-laden arguments.

Attention to Tension

An external facilitator can help the group attend to underlying tensions, because they are not a part of the tensions themselves. Noticing and acknowledging the tension is part of their work, and their neutrality allows them to gain trust from each party.

Broad Experience

Each organization is unique; the people involved have individual personalities and experiences. An external facilitator brings to the group their experience in gaining trust and accomplishing goals with many different personalities and situations.

Discipline

An external facilitator stays current on plans and tools for assuring that meetings and retreats accomplish their goals. From interviewing participants, to crafting agendas, to managing the meeting, and facilitating decisions, the facilitator brings discipline to the process of decision-making and planning.

This is the season when plans are being made for board retreats, summits and community convening. Who’s going to facilitate YOUR meetings?