I recently presented a session on strategy for the Arts & Business Council’s Arts Nonprofit Nuts and Bolts. I really enjoy these sessions because they give me the opportunity to connect with people passionate about making a difference in the world and who are eager for knowledge on how to better manage their organization. We talk about a lot of things when we talk about a strategy for non-profit organizations. One thing we talk about is what strategy really is.
What is strategy? My handy dictionary tells me that strategy is “a careful plan or method.” That’s a start. You can think of strategy as a careful plan or method to achieve your organization’s goals, to accomplish its mission, to realize its vision. But in over two decades of helping corporations, small businesses, individuals, and non-profits develop strategic plans, I’ve learned that the textbook definition only takes us so far. It doesn’t get to the heart of what strategy really is and how to make it matter to your organization. So what is strategy?
Strategy is… A Story.
Your strategy is the story of who your organization is and what it does. It is the story of your mission and your journey to achieving your vision. That story needs to be compelling, it needs to be memorable, it needs to motivate to action, it needs to stick. Dan and Chip Heath, in their seminal book “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die,” explore why some ideas “stick” and some don’t. One of the best ways to get your ideas to stick, they tell us, is to tell great stories. (Don’t take my word for it, though. Read the book.) Stories are powerful. Stories inform us. Stories engage us. Stories motivate us. People tell stories; they share stories. What is the story behind your strategy? Are you overcoming a formidable challenge? Are you developing a relationship that bridges a gap — racial, class, or demographic? Have you made a breakthrough to solve a long-standing problem? Tell me your strategy as a story; help me understand it; help motivate me to share it with others.
Strategy is…. People
All organizations, businesses, governments and nonprofits have stakeholders — people who care about, or who are affected by, what that organization does. With a non-profit organization, those stakeholders are paramount. These are the people whose lives you are devoted to changing. These are the staff members who toil, at well-below market rates, to achieve your mission. These are the volunteers who share your vision and who sacrifice their time to realize it. These are the donors who commit financial resources to achieve your goals. These are the characters in your story. A story doesn’t get far without characters to drive action and with whom a reader can relate. Likewise, a strategy cannot get far without considering the people who play an important role in executing it. Over the past few years, design thinking has permeated business strategy and for good reason. Design thinking uses interviews, observations, and immersion techniques to understand customer needs and priorities before talking about end product or solution. Non-profit organizations can apply the principles and tools of design thinking to better understands the needs of all their critical stakeholders and develop solutions, and strategies that meet those needs. Focus your strategy on the characters in your story to ensure that you are meeting their true needs.
Strategy is… A Team Sport
Once upon a time, strategy was pronounced from on high by executives and high-priced consultants who huddled in closed conference rooms or at far-flung retreats. No more. Organizations now realize that strategy only works if the people in the organization or who are touched by the organization or who support the organization are engaged If your stakeholders feel ownership over your strategy and over their ability to act on it, they will feel empowered to make it so, every day. In this case, the characters in your story have to help you write the story. Design thinking, with its focus on empathy and customer need, is a critical tool in ensuring that your characters help write the story. But you also need to make sure that all of the characters are involved. Expand your strategic planning sessions beyond just your key staff members and your board’s strategic planning committee. Involve your staff and volunteers. Bring in a group of individual and organizational donors. Incorporate a representative sample of the people who your organization helps. All these characters in your story have needs you need to understand and insights and perspectives you should consider as you write their strategy.
Strategy is… A Verb
The one constant in our dynamic, interconnected, and unpredictable world is that things will change. Every news cycle brings changes in the political, economic, and legal arenas. Changes in technology seem to happen daily. New products and new capabilities are made available and affordable. Environmental changes become more pressing and bring both opportunities and threats. Social factors — demographics and our shared beliefs and attitudes are also changing more rapidly than ever before. The strategy that made sense last year may no longer be viable because of these changes. New strengths or weaknesses may develop. New opportunities or threats may emerge. The strategic planning committee of the board that met once every few years, needs to meet more frequently to consider how internal and external changes impact strategy and how to respond. The staff and donors and stakeholders whose participation is key to developing a comprehensive strategy need to be available to refine, tune, and possibly completely rework. You need to rewrite your story to reflect the new landscape and to include new characters as they make their presence known. Your organization needs to practice strategy instead of just developing strategy.
What does all of this mean for you and your organization? Hopefully, it gives you a perspective on how you can ensure that your strategy is more than just a careful plan or method to achieve your organization’s goals. By keeping these four principles in mind, you can develop a strategy that tells the story of your organization through the voices of the people who participate in your mission and can continue to rewrite and define as the world changes around you.