Is It Time for a Strategy Check-up?

Five questions to help you get your organizational strategy in shape for spring.

1. First things first: Do you have an organizational strategy?

Unfortunately, strategy is one of those terms that gets misused and abused, so it’s important to agree on a definition. For our purposes, strategy is a coordinated set of actions aimed at creating and sustaining a competitive advantage in carrying out your organization’s mission. In other words, it’s how you choose to use your organization’s unique strengths to align and drive action.

Organizational strategy is characterized by intentionality, coherence, and direction. If you don’t see that coherence driving your efforts, you may not have a strategy. If the laundry list of goals in your strategic plan lack a unifying direction, you are probably lacking strategy. If you don’t have a strategic plan or framework — well, then — now may be the time to develop one!

2. Is your strategy well-articulated, shared, and understood across the organization?

Many organizations operate with an implicit organizational strategy, and may need only to make it more explicit and shared among the board and staff to ensure that it’s driving decisions and actions. This is less about coming up with a slick way of expressing your strategy than it is the about the work it takes to get there. The focus shouldn’t be on crafting the perfect strategy statement or logical framework — these are secondary outcomes. (Though if you can’t express your strategy clearly and succinctly, it may be a signal that you haven’t thought it through as well as you think you have!) More importantly, it’s the process of involving board and staff members in examining and affirming the current strategy that’s going to bring greater clarity and renewed energy to power your work.

3. Does your competitive advantage still hold true? (Are you sure?)

Your strategy depends on doing what your organization does best — i.e. what makes it different and better than any other solution. But a competitive advantage is only an advantage if it’s what others recognize you for, so don’t just go with what you think you know; ask some of your allies to gain fresh perspective.

Your assumptions about your organizational strengths may or may not hold true. Test them. If your valued stakeholders have a different take on what you do well and what you may need to improve upon, it could be a good time to revisit your strategy. What may have been a strength two or three years ago may no longer be serving you as well. Or perhaps you’ve built strength in an area that’s currently under-leveraged. Getting clear on your competitive advantage is about making sure your strategy is built on a solid foundation.

4. Are trends in your operating environment favorable or threatening to your work?

We all work in dynamic environments where policy and economic trends exert a complex push-and-pull. Individual giving is growing overall, but cuts in government funding and the new tax law hurt nonprofit finances. The policy environment is hostile to many nonprofit missions such as serving marginalized populations and protecting our planet, but it has also made this work increasingly urgent. You may experience these high-level trends as a major shakeup, or as simply more of the same, depending on your organization and its field of work. Your strategy should be intentional in either responding to them or enduring in spite of them.

Digging a layer deeper: Are your constituents’ needs changing? Are new ways of getting those needs met emerging, and/or are new competitors filling those needs? Or are others exiting the field, leaving gaps? These kinds of questions may offer more opportunity for creative strategic responses. After exploring these trends and their positive or limiting impacts on your work, the essential move is to identify whether one or a combination of them compel a strategic response.

5. Is there a Big Question that is keeping your organization from taking its work to the next level?

As a nonprofit leader, you grapple with important questions every day. But not all important questions your organization faces have the potential to impact your strategic direction. A Big Question is one that compels a new strategic response — one that, if resolved, helps inform the resolution of your many other important questions. Put another way, Big Questions are like the first domino in a line that, pushed in the right direction at the right time, will set other strategy dominoes in motion toward successful achievement of your mission.

If these five questions sound familiar…they should. It’s no coincidence that they closely parallel the five principles that characterize our approach to strategy development. Real-Time Strategic Planning is all about the importance of strategic thinking and acting on an ongoing basis. So, is it time for a strategy check-up? Yes, always!

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