To Get the Right Answer, Ask the Right Question


Identifying your Big Question is one of the five key principles in La Piana Consulting’s Real-Time Strategic Planning approach to strategy development. But what do we mean by that, and how can it help your organization define a solid strategy?

In essence, a Big Question is an opportunity or threat to which the organization must respond.

Big Questions typically arise in one of three forms:

  1. A new opportunity. Opportunities are present whenever the organization perceives that with effort, timing, and perhaps a little luck, it can increase the programs and services that it is providing, reach new consistencies, or in other ways measurably improve its ability to achieve its mission.
  2. A competitive challenge. A competitive challenge occurs when another organization acts in ways — often quite unintentional — that can harm your organization. This can be when a competitor expands its services, launches a high-profile campaign, or succeeds in garnering funding that was previously coming to your nonprofit.
  3. A business model challenge. Business model challenges are similar to competitive challenges, except that they pose a challenge not only to your nonprofit but to all others in your field. Business model challenges may emerge when there is a significant policy shift, a disruption in funding streams, or a new and widely adopted approach to achieving your mission.

Defining your Big Question may require some work. Remember that a Big Question is a strategic challenge — and as such, it must be framed in terms of the organization’s mission, context, and priorities.

For example: A funder announces a grant program that is relevant to those you serve but would require the development of new programs, and perhaps new competencies, within your organization.

Questions you might ask include:

  • How much funding should we request?
  • Will we be able to hire additional staff to do the work?
  • What are the implications for our mission and current work if we add new services?

Look carefully. The first two questions are practical, but operational in nature. The last question frames your strategic dilemma: Would moving in this new direction further our mission? That’s your Big Question.

Big Questions can emerge at any time, and they have the potential to move you beyond the scope of your current strategies. It is important to be clear on what your Big Question is — then you can begin to formulate and test potential strategic responses.

What are the Big Questions facing your organization today?

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