I live in San Francisco and I love to go for walks through the neighborhoods. When I think about smart strategy, I always think about our famously winding Lombard Street. You wouldn’t think it by looking at it, but those crooked zigs and zags are actually the best way up the hill. Sometimes weaving back and forth is the surest way to get to where you’re going — but you still need to know that you want to get to the top!
Like chocolate and peanut butter…
Often, our clients will tell us “we tend to be opportunistic, not really very strategic.” I always find this puzzling because it sets up a false choice between strategy and opportunism. Yet organizations and leaders do tend to identify with one or the other.
Proponents of an opportunistic approach like to keep their options open and don’t want to be tied down. They see their strength as being aware of changes going on in their field and responding quickly to new opportunities for partnerships, new funding streams, or new program approaches. By contrast, those championing a strategic approach prefer to describe a well-considered pathway forward and stick to it. They see their approach as one that leverages perseverance and long-term gain.
Both approaches are valid. Opportunists chafe at being overly committed to a predetermined strategy because it feels like a straitjacket that doesn’t allow them to respond to change — they want to remain flexible. Strategists want to avoid ongoing organizational upheaval that pushes staff to twist and turn in pursuit of every new fad or bump in the road — they want to be consistent.
The good news is that, like chocolate and peanut butter, strategy and opportunity are better together. The two shouldn’t be in opposition to each other at all.
You can be strategic AND opportunistic.
Every organization has opportunities that it needs to either seize upon or to consciously let pass by. Strategy is about being prepared to make great decisions about whatever opportunity comes along.
We define strategy as a coordinated set of actions designed to leverage your organization’s competitive advantage (your differentiating strengths or value proposition) in the service of your mission. Good organizational strategy describes your overall direction.
For an opportunistic leader or nonprofit to reconcile with good strategic decision-making, an organization has only to develop agreement on how it will make strategic decisions in response to new opportunities. This begins by first adopting a strategy screen or list of criteria to be weighed when making important decisions. Then the organization needs to agree on its organizational strategy: a description of its overall trajectory.
For every opportunity, how do you respond strategically?
A good example of how this works in the real world is when your organization wants to expand. It could choose geographic expansion (e.g., serving the entire state rather than just one city) or program expansion (e.g., serving children under 4 years old in addition to those ages 5 and up). Using a strategy screen, you can weigh each of these against previously-agreed-upon criteria and select an organizational strategy: in this fictional case, to expand geographically.
What’s still uncertain is how to expand geographically. You may look for new opportunities by actively seeking them out or more quietly “keeping an ear to the ground.” Opportunities may arise from a funding RFQ being released in a new geographic area, or by going to a conference and meeting the executive director of a service provider in another city who wants to learn more about your programs…and maybe partner in bringing your programs to her community. Those are great opportunities, and you now know that you should evaluate each one — using your strategy screen as a guide — as a means to pursue your overall strategy. Later, when a third opportunity emerges (such as a current funder seeking to expand pre-natal services in your city) you know that it is not the right choice for you and why.
Very strategic organizations are smart about scanning for and responding to opportunities — that’s part of being strategic! But mastering the balance between strategy and opportunity demands that organizations be intentional about building their intended future. It’s not enough to simply react to opportunities. Organizations need to develop a point of view about how they will best fulfill their mission, and take advantage of each opportunity to move them down their chosen path.