Getting to What Matters Most
“After more than 50 years of growth and impact, we risk losing everything if we don’t get this right.”
Is this your story? The young executive director told us what was at stake as we walked into the strategy retreat. He was right. A wrong strategic step for this well-known nonprofit would be disastrous. The success of the past would not create more prosperity. Quite the reverse, past success was causing some of his biggest problems.
“We’re trying to move on from past glories to something new.”
What worked so well for many years doesn’t work anymore – everything has changed. Everyone agrees the organization’s mission is still critical, maybe now more than ever.
This leader’s team was paralyzed by fear of change in a context that was changing at breakneck speed. Add to this a weak board, outdated facilities, longtime ineffective employees and financial pressure. It seemed as though everything was at stake as we sat down to talk strategy together.
Are you stuck?
Is this your story? Is your organization stuck and ineffective? If so, you already know the toll it takes in a world where the speed of change gets faster every day. It is not uncommon for us to meet with leaders who are burned out, frustrated and unsure how to jump-start their momentum and get on the path to results. Can you relate? Here are some common complaints we hear from leaders of organizations that are stuck:
“We talk about the same challenges meeting after meeting, and yet nothing ever seems to change.”
Nothing undermines the trust of the team more than these unproductive discussions. Eventually people lose confidence that things will ever improve.
“We want to be successful, but we’re not sure what a win looks like.”
What worked in the past may not work today. There is a temptation to just do something, but tactics without strategic clarity, are likely to be fruitless.
“Our team was once very committed, but now they’re tired and losing their enthusiasm for the future.”
Fatigue leads to mistakes, conflict and dysfunctional relationships on the team. It also leads to turnover, which damages organizational culture.
“No one’s really stepping up to make a strong decision and lead us in the right direction.”
Leadership with strong vision is vital to success, but difficult to maintain. Leading requires clarity about where we are now and where we need to go to fulfill the vision.
“We don’t have a plan we can all believe in, and as a result, departments create their own plans to keep things moving.”
This creates misalignment and inefficiency. Without a plan that unifies us, we can seem like more like multiple organizations than one unified team.
If your story is anything like this; you need a plan that gives you straightforward answers to these questions:
- Where are we right now?
- Where do we need to go?
- How do we get there?
Nothing provides answers to these questions better than a well-developed organizational strategy.
What is organizational strategy?
If we asked a room full of people (even one full of business leaders) to define strategy, we might draw one of two conclusions: lots of opinions with little agreement; or strategy is just another word for planning.
A graduate strategy class totally changed my thinking. The simple opening exercise was powerful. Asked to define “strategy,” we had a vigorous discussion. This group of experienced business people could not reach a consensus.
Entertained, our professor observed, “you have all of these ideas and opinions, yet you still see strategy as planning.”
“Leading requires clarity about where we are now and where we need to go to fulfill the vision.”
We learned to think differently through that course – to understand there is much more to strategy than making a plan, even a good one.
A strong case study to define strategy is what happened on D-Day (June 6, 1944). When Allied forces invaded northern France landing on the beaches at Normandy, what was the strategy?
- Was it the years of meticulous planning in advance?
- Was it what happened on the beach as the plan was executed and adjustments made?
- Was it the outcome, the sum total of everything that took place from beginning to end?
I believe the answer is “yes.” There are at least three components of strategy:
|What we wanted to happen
|What we did to make it happen
If this is true, it has major implications for organizational strategy. Planning is not enough. Strategy must be built into our organization from beginning to end. Organizational strategy includes planning, execution, and results – the totality of our business activities aimed at fulfilling our vision and producing results. Do not hear “everything is strategy;” the reality is strategy (intentional or not) is woven into everything we do.
On the beach at Normandy, it is extraordinary that so many soldiers did the right next thing. Privates, who lost their superiors and most of their platoon mates, still managed to do their part to win the day. Instead of reacting by falling into the fetal position and hiding, they asked “what do I do now?” Guided by the strategic objectives (the plan), they knew what to do. In the end, they executed the strategy.
How can organizational strategy guide us to health and growth?
Well-designed and implemented organizational strategy can help your organization and people to win the day too. So many nonprofits and ministries are ineffective because they are either doing too many things, or they are doing the wrong things. Helping you know what is most important is what great organizational strategy does best!
So, follow these steps and build a powerful organizational strategy:
- Stop, pull away from the day-to-day activities and chaos to dedicate time to strategy. This should be at least one to two days a year, and then a quarterly check-up (half-day to a full-day) to review and adjust. Put this on your calendar now.
- Engage a facilitator who can guide you to success. Especially the first time, find an experienced guide who can lead you through well-planned exercises to get to the truth.
- Include the right team members – all key leaders to bring a balance of ideas, perspectives and priorities. This also helps to make sure the strategy will be owned. You need senior leaders from the C-suite, finance, development, HR, ministry, operations, etc.
- Find the true answer to the question “where are we now?” You must know what’s working, and what’s not working? Honestly identify areas of growth and those where resources are being poorly invested by assessing every initiative.
- Discover your best opportunities to grow and fulfill your organization’s mission.
- Identify WINs (What’s Important Now) and develop goals to guide your work. Each one needs a champion who develops a plan of action and is responsible to see it through.
- Commit to being accountable. The annual and quarterly check-ups allow you to ask the question “where are we now?” again and to reaffirm What’s Important Now.
It doesn’t require genius, but it will never be easy!
Successful organizational strategy is not difficult to understand, but it will require some of us to think differently. Most leaders keep an eye on revenue and the state of other key metrics (numbers related to members, donors, sales, etc.), but they’re not set up to review the progress of their key strategies. Great organizational strategy should be built into your systems regularly reviewed and updated. This reveals what is not productive and helps your team focus on what matters most!
Mark McPeak is Vice President of Market Research and Organizational Strategy at 5by5 Agency. He has more than 25 years of experience as a market research and strategy professional having worked with some of the largest companies in the world. He is certified in StratOp for organizational strategy.