‘Strategic planning is dead!’

‘Strategic planning is dead!’ read the headlines. I’ve seen a number of articles recently that give the death knell to the strategic plan and in some cases, strategy itself. I can see where the authors are coming from. Too often, strategic plans are done without a lot of involvement by those who are tasked with making them come to life. They are long and seem arduous to the leader who has to somehow make sense of them to operationalize. And sometimes it’s hard to even see what the organization is trying to do in the world because all of the strategic goals are internal. No clear vision has been established for the planning group to embrace, so there is no clear path for achieving a big social change. So where does everyone end up? In operations! And that’s a fun place for Boards and Executive Directors, right?! This results in nonprofits spending several years naval gazing and unable to articulate their impact because everything is pointing back to what are essentially business improvement targets rather than strategic goals. Or, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, the strategic plan ends up on the shelf above the Board Policy manual, dying a slow and irrelevant death.

Taking a story approach to strategy development

At Peel Leadership Centre (PLC), we have been lucky to receive some funding from the Region of Peel to try out different ways to do strategic planning to make strategy relevant again. It hasn’t been easy. The inevitable eye roll from Executive Directors who have several decades of strategic plans on their shelves and the backdrop of a sector driven by reporting to a multitude of funders has made it a little tough to try and make strategy ‘sexy’. However, we think we’ve found a way to break through the strategic planning fog and create ownership and excitement for the whole organization again. And we are doing that by using STORY.

Now you have likely experienced story as a buzzword recently. It’s all about the ‘storytelling’. However, there is more to story than just using it for front end communications. Storytelling is crucial for fundraising and engagement. But it’s also an important tool to use internally. Finding and sharing stories within that illustrate how we help, helps an organization to get clear about its impact. And understanding impact is crucial for visioning. If you don’t know what change you are currently making, how do you know what change you want to make in the future? Again, too often the vision ends up being about the organization rather than how it wants to change the world. And then we wonder why donor or volunteer engagement is falling off. No one wants to invest time or money in a nonprofit organization. They want to invest in the difference that organization is making in their communities and the world around them. Story helps us to get back to the basics – impact.

The stories of impact lie at the front line

PLC has chosen to move away from stakeholder interviews to determine what other people think the organization should be doing. Instead, we interview staff, volunteers and clients where appropriate to find the organization’s impact stories. These are not stories about the organization or about its history.  How the organization started and what it’s done since is interesting, but the stories of impact lie at the front line. We make sure we get stories that demonstrate the breadth and depth of an organization’s impact and then we bring them to what we call a ‘Dreaming Day’. Some Boards of Directors get a little nervous. ‘Dreaming’ and ‘story’ do not sound like rigorous business processes. And they’re not. That’s why we’re doing it. Despite the push for nonprofits to be more ‘business like’ they are not businesses and should not approach their visioning like a business. They have much bigger things to achieve in the world and need to stay focused on that. The stories help to remind everyone that they are there to make a difference.

As if by magic, the vision appears!

We share the stories, identify emotional reactions and then we have a ‘story harvest’. This involves the group finding insights and impact in each story. These are written on flip chart and put up on a wall. When the stories have been harvested, the group looks at all the flipcharts and as if by magic, the vision appears. It’s amazing to watch! Too often visioning is a painful process. That is often because of the lack of consensus about impact within a group. It becomes all about the wordsmithing. What SOUNDS best. There is of course some focus on wording in our approach but the group is focused on what FEELS best. From that starting point, the words are less important because everyone has an emotional connection to the vision. That’s the superpower of story – creating an emotional connection. And, the participants of the day all leave with vivid stories in their heads of people they have helped, ready to share with others.

The day also involves activities that enable the group to dream about what they could accomplish on their journey toward their vision. We use creative methods and facilitate conversations. With a clear vision, the mission is easy to find as are the goals and strategies needed to make it happen. Afterwards, PLC is able to craft a succinct strategic plan that the Board can tweak and approve. The process is fast and efficient because of the commonality generated on the day.

Can story save strategic planning?

So far, the feedback about this new methodology has been very positive. Participants have been inspired by the stories and are excited about their visions. They have talked about how different this approach is from other strategic planning processes they have participated in and how much clearer they are about the organization’s impact.  Can story save strategic planning? We will continue to find out!

If you are a small to medium sized organization in Peel and you would like to try out a new way of doing strategic planning, please contact us at info@peelleadershipcentre.org. We’d love to help you to bring your stories and strategy to life!

Until next time!


This week’s blog was written by Lianne Picot. Lianne is the Executive Director of Peel Leadership Centre, an organization growing leadership and organizational capacity in the non-profit sector. Lianne is passionate about great leadership, storytelling and creating opportunities for transformational learning. Connect with Lianne at lpicot@peelleadershipcentre.org.

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