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You could be the reason why your strategic plan is failing

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned from working with nonprofits, from small business development centers to government agencies, it’s that strategic plans are shelved as often as they’re made. While much of my guidance on overcoming strategic planning process hurdles is tailored for nonprofits, strategic planning is critical for any type of business. If you are an industry leader, these recommendations and advice can apply to your strategies.

If you’re a leader and your strategic plan isn’t working, maybe it’s time to look in the mirror. Chances are the problem is the lack of attention you’re paying to the plan and its execution.

I know you’re busy. Maybe you’re writing a scholarship due tomorrow, replacing your development director who suddenly left, fulfilling the board’s last urgent request, preparing a financial report for tonight’s board meeting, and so on. I get it.

But if you’re just doing fires, you don’t make time for the fire prevention process of strategic planning – and in the process you lose countless opportunities to build your organization’s capacity.

I’ve been leading strategic planning with nonprofits for about 25 years. I know what works and what doesn’t, and the main thing that keeps strategic plans from working is the lack of attention leaders pay to using their strategic plans.

Sure, Covid-19 may have messed up your plan and executing it may have been folly. But as we move to the other side of the pandemic, it’s time to update your plan and make sure your leaders are ready to oversee its implementation.

If you have a strategic plan that needs launching or updating, here are some fundamental ways you and your team can make sure it has the impact you want.

Related: 5 Actionable Strategic Planning Tips to Increase Business Efficiency

Approach strategic planning as a process, not an event

All too often, leaders view strategic planning as an event or a moment in time. You hear this perspective when they talk about making a plan or having an off-site planning retreat, but they don’t discuss how the plan will be executed.

An alternative and much more supportive mindset is to view strategic planning as a continuous and never-ending process. Evaluate, plan, execute and repeat, year after year. All the while, make sure you defend the overall process on behalf of your team and organization.

Approaching strategic planning as a process also sets a great precedent for all the other reproducible processes that should be at the heart of your organization: fund development, performance management, board onboarding, volunteer training, etc.

Get a co-champion

The organizations that have the most success with strategic planning typically have two people overseeing the execution of the plan. I call these people planning “fellow champions.”

Having a co-champion gives you responsibility, a thoughtful partner and, frankly, makes strategic planning all the more fun. In addition, the organization builds a deeper talent pool by having two people, not one, in charge of strategic planning.

If you don’t have a strategic planning co-championship structure, I highly recommend that you do so.

Related: How to Fall in Love with Strategic Planning

Create and communicate a planning calendar

If you’re like me, if something isn’t on your agenda, it’s just not going to happen. So schedule your strategic planning meetings — for a whole year.

The meetings that I think work best are:

  • An annual meeting or retreat for the board and staff to review and update the long-term vision of your plan and key strategic themes
  • Quarterly check-in meetings of your team’s key leaders to ensure the plan is on track and celebrate success
  • Have key team members meet monthly to review and discuss progress on goals

All these meetings can be scheduled in advance. Once your team members see these meetings and dates on the calendar, they will develop confidence in the process and jump on board with you.

Related: How to Launch Any Strategic Initiative Successfully

Measure, measure, measure

You’ve probably heard the expression, “What’s measured, gets done,” or “You control what you measure.” There is much truth in those statements.

I have found that developing a monthly measurement cadence is appropriate for most organizations. Measure your active goals and metrics monthly and make sure your team knows where it stands.

If you need ideas on how best to measure your plan’s goals and metrics, consider this two-pronged approach. First, use a “traffic light” rubric to apply a color status to each of your targets:

  • Green: Goal is on track and likely to be completed by due date
  • Yellow: There are delays with this goal and it may not be completed by the due date
  • Red: You must be kidding! It is impossible to achieve this goal on the expiration date

I also apply two more colors to round out the rubric:

  • Blue: The goal has been achieved
  • Grey: the work on the goal has not yet begun

Second, you can make your measurement even more accurate by applying a percent complete score. For example, you may have a goal that is “red” but it is 90% complete. The percentage complete score gives a more complete picture.

In short, effective strategic planning – like so many things – requires strong leadership and management. As a leader, it’s up to you to make sure you and your team have the right mindset and practices to ensure you get the best return on your planning investment.

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