Working on strategic planning with several organizations, I was reminded of the importance of execution – and this post from 2014. Here’s an updated version.
Ahh, the glorious feeling of looking at the month after next on your calendar and seeing whole empty days. How easy it is to be magnanimous and say “yes” when asked to take on a job that isn’t due for two months. So we say “yes,” and put it on the calendar. When another someone asks us to do something in the future, we again check our calendar, see that it’s still pretty empty, and again say “yes.” This happens a few more times, and all of a sudden, the 1st week in December starts looking pretty full.
Then as December 1 approaches, all the things we want to accomplish – long term projects, researching new programs, reading for professional development – have to get squeezed into the unscheduled times, alongside putting out the inevitable fires that weren’t anticipated, calling our parents, and taking our kid to the doctor.
If we’d scheduled the projects, research, and professional development, then that week wouldn’t have looked so free. We might have more carefully evaluated the request, and said ‘no’ to some of them, in order to have time to accomplish our own long term goals.
Almost everyone experiences this phenomenon. Dan Ariely, the behavioral economist who wrote Predictably Irrational, said:
“Because of the ways calendars are created, people actually take more meetings than they should… We have this satisfaction of having our calendar seem busy. We have the satisfaction of not saying ‘no’ to things. But at the same time, we’re chasing away things that are important to us for things that are unimportant.”
When you add together the many individuals on a board or in a department, the problem gets compounded. We all know whole departments and companies that fill their time with tasks and meetings, leaving all the workers wondering if they’ve actually accomplished anything. Similarly, nonprofit boards of directors are often left wondering why their strategic plans are never accomplished.
A strategic plan without concrete, timed, scheduled milestones is a wish list.
Several organizations I’ve worked with want to build a stronger board. The sequence goes like this:
- In 2014, they stated that by the year 2017 we’ll have a stronger, more diverse board, representative of the community.
- In 2016, they determine that by 2019 we’ll have a stronger board, representative of the community.
- In 2018, are they going to say that by 2021 we’ll have a stronger, more diverse board, representative of the community?
Probably. Unless they schedule the time to think through what it will take to make that shift. Then schedule the time to execute each step on that newly planned path.
We all have the best intentions in the world to accomplish our strategic plans. Yet without putting them on the calendar, those planned goals are going to get squeezed out by the so-easily scheduled meetings, the inevitable fires, and the daily tasks that we take for granted and therefore forget that they take time.
Tom Peters, author of In Search of Excellence and A Passion for Excellence is famous for the dictum, “What’s measured gets done.” Back in business school, I learned this phrase as a component of Managing by Objective, which requires that these critical questions be answered:
- What are you planning to do?
- Who will be in charge?
- By when will it be accomplished?
The problem is that MBO leaves out the step of scheduling the time to actually work on it. There is still room for procrastination. Even if the objective is accomplished, nothing keeps it from being done at the last minute or squeezed into inconvenient half-hour chunks of time around scheduled meetings. The result is frenetic or burned-out workers and volunteers.
After a recent strategic planning session, a participant approached me and said that it was one of the most intense sessions she’d ever experienced. She really felt that they had the path forward. She said the biggest difference was that they actually set completion dates for every activity, and scheduled when they would work on it.
On the two hour drive home, I remembered Ariely’s column about personal planning. In an aha moment, I realized that while setting milestones may get activities accomplished, it’s:
- Acknowledging that those milestones exist,
- Keeping them in front us, and
- Scheduling the time to accomplish them,
that makes the plan realistic.
Scheduling the time in which to accomplish the milestones forces you to acknowledge that accomplishing these goals will take time. It makes it a lot easier to say ‘no’ to a request that will divert your time away from the agreed upon goal.
What gets measured gets done. True. What gets scheduled gets done more sanely.
If we don’t plan our own future with the things that matter to us, then we relinquish our future to the obligations of others.
Will your plan be accomplished on time? Will your board and staff stay sane in the process? Let me know what you think! Post them here or you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Things fall through the cracks. They just do. Not often. But they do.
Sometimes it’s because we have too much on our plates. Sometimes, an emergency or a rush job came up, and our mind is focused on that. But sometimes, everything is going along smoothly, and things still fall through the cracks, because everyone thinks it’s someone else’s job.
As a recovering control freak, I used to be the one who made sure that everything got done. To me, the path of least resistance was for me to do it.
But as a consultant, that’s the very worst thing I could do. My job is to let YOU do it; it’s YOUR job to take responsibility and figure out how to do it yourself, so eventually, you don’t need me.
So what do I do? I make sure you end your meetings affirming who is doing what, by when.
Whether it’s a nine month long strategic planning project, a one day planning retreat, or any meeting in which a decision is made, they all end the same way:
Who is doing what? By when? How will you know it’s done?
I was working with one multi-faceted organization whose executive director had announced he was retiring in two years. Despite general dismay, after four months the board had not yet formulated a plan for finding his successor. I was asked to get them started.
At a full day retreat, we spent the morning envisioning the future of the organization and the CEO qualities that would help that future become reality. Then, over lunch, I let it ‘slip’ about being a recovering control freak. Through general laughter, I told them that the way I managed it was by making sure THEY knew what they were going to do, and how they were going to do it.
That afternoon, we mapped out how they would go about finding a successor: what research they would need, what data they would want, what the board, staff, and other constituents would need. Then, about an hour before adjourning, I reminded them of my ‘recovering control freak’ statement, and asked:
“Now that you’ve decided what you’re going to do, who is going to be responsible for making sure it gets done?
“You don’t have to be the one that does it, but you’re the one who stays on top of it, and makes sure it’s accomplished.
“Who’s job is it?”
Then, when that person self-identified, the next question was,
“Great! By when? When will this goal be completed?”
“When will you have that first committee meeting? When will you have the first progress report to the board?”
Those milestones were entered into the plan, and the Board Chair keeps track of who is doing what. The milestones give the entire board an opportunity to reflect on whether the progress needs to be speeded up or the goals amended.
By coaching the Board and Staff on building their own accountability into their plans, I satisfy my control freak tendencies, and enable the excellent members of the leadership team to step up.
A win-win result all around.
“Sometimes in life, we have a really full plate of things that we’re focusing on and need to deal with. And it’s at that moment, that something happens that demands that we switch focus, so that we need to move things around. From this we learn that the items on the plate are always movable–we just need to realize that we can move them.” Rabbi Elisa Koppel
Although Rabbi Koppel was writing about life events, the lesson is also pretty valid for work. The lesson is even valid for things we view as solidly in place for the next 3 years, like a strategic plan. Circumstances change as the world changes, and we have to rearrange the things on our plate to accommodate these changes.
A lot of talk right now focuses on how a single election can change the trajectory of the country. But changes abound in the world regardless of whether it’s an election year. We see it in the rapidly changing social media landscape, which transforms how people take in information and make decisions. We see it in the swiftly changing transportation industry, in which car ownership is no longer a non-negotiable rite of passage, and people share rides with strangers instead of warning against hitchhiking. We see it in the gig economy becoming the norm for a generation.
The cascade effect of all these changes is real.
What does that mean for your organization? That’s up to you. The world may have changed, but that doesn’t mean that your vision has changed.
Your vision remains how you want the world to be because you exist.
But the world moves too quickly, and things change too rapidly, for a five year strategic plan to be viable. Even 3 years may be too long.
That’s why we build expansion joints into the plans; specific times to reevaluate. Circumstances change all the time, but we don’t always pay attention. Or our plates are so full of the ‘stuff’ that has to get done, that we don’t pick up our heads to look around at what might be different now.
Putting calculated milestones into our plans make us stop and reevaluate the progress. These are specified times when we check to see whether the plans and assumptions are still valid.
Yet even with the calculated milestones, it may feel as if you’re in a groove and you just want to keep going, despite the new information.
That’s when it’s important to remember that “the items on the plate are always movable – we just need to realize that we can move them.”
5 Questions for making decisions
How do you get out of the groove? Here are five questions to ask yourself and the others around the table.
- “What is our vision? Do we all still agree on the vision of where we’re heading?”
Now that we have new circumstances:
- “What does staying in our current groove make possible, in our quest toward that vision?
- “What does changing our direction make possible, in our quest toward that vision?”
- “What is the downside if we stay in our groove, relative to our vision?”
- “What is the downside if we change our direction, relative to our vision?”
These five questions are the beginning of looking objectively at the effect of new circumstances on our current plans. Instead of appealing to legacy or history or prior investments or a single person’s passion, these questions allow you to evaluate the proposals relative to the same point—the vision you are aiming for.
And isn’t your vision really why you exist?
The things on your plate are movable. All you need is the will to move them.
Ever notice how your tires seem to have a rhythmic thump when you drive across a bridge? Those are the spaces engineers deliberately put between the steel plates – the expansion joints. Expansion joints on a bridge accommodate the stresses that come with different loads and changing weather conditions. The spaces between plates shrink and grow as the temperature, wind, and pressures change.
Without expansion joints, stress fractures would start as the solid plates shrink and grow without relief. Unattended, stress fractures lead to failure.
Good strategic plans have expansion joints.
Strategic plans usually incorporate milestones and accountability as a way to ensure that a plan gets executed. But they also serve another purpose. Milestones are opportunities to notice stresses on the plan, and make changes if necessary.
In a strategic plan, the expansion joints are the times you set up to check-in on its progress. Good plans have accountability, milestones and regular check-ins built in. They not only ensure execution, they are a built-in mechanism that lets you notice and relieve the stresses on the plan’s execution. They provide regular times to review the plan, to see if it’s still viable, valid and relevant.
In my work, I’ve seen organizations that create beautiful plans – without accountability. The visions are magnificent. The goals are lofty. But they never get off the ground because they never set regular check-ins. A year later they look at the plan and wonder why the plan has failed.
A plan without milestones is like a rigid bridge without expansion joints. There are no breathing spaces to see if the execution needs tweaking, or to see if changing circumstances might affect what you want to do. In the case of the beautiful plan, regular check-ins would have told them where the bottle-neck was, and given them an opportunity to revise.
We all need expansion joints in our lives. Spaces in our calendar that relieve the stresses we encounter. And that’s a post for another day.
Right now, consider whether your strategic plan, your marketing plan, your communications plan, your financial plan – every plan, has expansion joints built in. They all need periodic looks to check on their progress and their needs.
If you take the time to read this or other nonprofit board governance blogs, then there’s a good chance you have a strategic plan. In a lot of my previous posts, I’ve talked about keeping your organization on track with the strategic plan and how to keep your board focused on the plan. But I’ve never considered pointing out the necessity of having a plan at all.
Then along came this report from the Concord Leadership Group that just blew me away.
According to the Nonprofit Sector Leadership Report 2016, out of more than 1000 respondents in the nonprofit sector, 49% indicated they “are operating without any knowledge of or access to a strategic plan.” They either didn’t have a plan (29%), didn’t know if they had a plan (4%), or the plan wasn’t written down (19%).
If that’s the case, maybe it’s time to talk about why a plan is important.
Nonprofits with a written strategic plan tend to be bigger. You can’t meaningfully grow without knowing where you are going and how you are going to get there. Of the respondents in this study, 80% of those with budgets of >$5 million have a strategic plan.
Strategic plans help in employee evaluations. With a strategic plan in place and disseminated widely in the organization, employees know how their work fits into the larger picture. Their evaluations can then be based on how the work that they are doing is furthering the mission.
Strategic plans help communicate your vision to funders. Taking the time to articulate your vision and how you will accomplish it gives board members and staff practice in articulating that vision to potential funders. Developing it together keeps the message to all stakeholders consistent across the organization. According to the study, 77% of organizations with a strategic plan “agreed that a unifying shared vision existed,” versus 47% of those without a plan.
Strategic plans build sustainability into the daily life of the organization. By planning for the future, you are thinking about what it will take to achieve that future. As Sheila Bravo, CEO of Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement points out, that also means determining what is needed for your nonprofit to be sustainable in the future.
What would having a strategic plan make possible for your organization?
What would make it possible for you to HAVE a strategic plan, and to successfully execute it?
Exploring the answers to those questions is itself an exercise toward your future. I’m happy to have that conversation with you.
Follow me at The Detwiler Group for more about nonprofit governance, education and strategic planning, or reach me at email@example.com.