Are strategic plans obsolete?

Have you heard? Strategic plans are dead.

Do a web search of this provocative phrase and there is some terrific writing on the subject, most notably the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s blog post from January 2013, here.

Perhaps we are witnessing the demise of the “dusty, notebook binder-encased” document on a shelf. For consultants like RMA, this would mean our value is in teaching nonprofit leaders how to approach each day on the job (or on the board) differently, with less emphasis on leading a finite process that begins and ends over three- or four-month timeline.

Not sure whether this a concept you are ready to embrace? Here are a few summary considerations.

1. The goal is not to draw a map. The goal in this new way to thinking about nonprofit strategic planning is to coach your team to naturally keep an eye on the horizon, always asking new questions throughout a continuous voyage, and being willing to make small but powerful shifts in direction when needed.

2. In today’s fast-changing world, your strategic approach would be frozen in a five-year plan. Instead of the old approach of “making a plan and sticking to it,” which led to centralized strategic planning around fixed time horizons, the new challenge is in setting a direction and testing to it, treating your whole organization as a team that is “experimenting its way to success.”

3. One of the Stanford article’s authors describes herself as “fascinated by the border between strategy and execution, where seemingly incremental changes in day-to-day behavior can enable individuals and organizations to achieve breakthrough social change.” Understanding that “border” is probably the key to shifting your approach to strategic planning from a project to a process.

4. At the extreme edge of this new movement are some who deny the value of strategy at all, arguing that organizations need agility above all else. One of the arguments this group makes is that for a very long time, the past was a reliable predictor of the future; today, however, because the speed of communication and the ability to find information instantaneously in a web search, being nimble is more important than being a learned sage.

5. Strategic planning in this new definition is continuous and self-correcting, an endless mental loop that runs from observe to orient to decide and finally to act, returning immediately to further observation. This way, strategic planning isn’t something you “do” in the third or fourth quarter of the year that gets “done.” It’s about learning year-round to take on a fluid series of intentional experiments.

6. Remember that one of the critical elements of leadership is being able to function within a climate of uncertainty—and even learn to be comfortable there. The idea of not having a firm, defined plan with goals and objectives would naturally be difficult for some staff and board members. It would take time for people to trust that you’re not risking your nonprofit’s success.

7. The skills and mindset for today’s strategic planning will come from continuously asking ourselves questions about our purpose, programs, and impact. Very simplified, the loop is what do we want to do, how are we going to do it, and what resources will we need to do it with and then always rolling back to check your assumptions, measure success, and figuring out how to do it better or faster or more economically or with less environmental impact.

8. The way we conduct research is changing, too. With data now ubiquitous, we have to give up our reliance on routine data collection and move into pattern recognition so that we know what amid the constant flow of data before us is worth our attention. Remember when we used to rely on a printed, bound phone book? Even then, some information in that book had expired before the ink was dry on the page, and every day the book went further out of date. Now put that idea on warp speed, and you can appreciate the origin of “the plan is dead” idea.

9. There will always be tension, rightfully, between control and innovation. The more an organization has rules and a defined framework, the more it risks being static. Having a strict policy is not inherently bad, it’s just that the more we institutionalize how we work, the less likely there is breathing room for innovation and continuous improvement. The risk of locking in to a particular delivery system is that you won’t see how new technology could speed things up, and you’ll probably move farther away from the people you serve–who are in a constant state of motion, i.e., aging, using technology differently, and so on. (For an extreme illustration of this concept, visit your local motor vehicle registration office and notice how friendly, efficient, or dynamic the atmosphere is. Is that what your nonprofit aspires to?)

10. The critical difference between continuous strategic thinking versus executing a strategic plan is the same difference we describe between leadership and management. Leaders ask questions and tirelessly seek a better way; managers are responsible for making sure that systems are defined and productive, day in and day out. Your organization needs both disciplines, of course. The metaphor is understanding the difference between having sufficient supplies of lumber and the right size nuts and bolts . . . and asking whether the structure should be built out of entirely different materials, or whether it needs to be built at all.

RMA has long decried that universities are turning out graduates who are accomplished system practitioners rather than strategic thinkers. We need to teach young people to ask “why” instead of instructing yesterday’s version of “how.” Even Marcel Proust understood that the prize is mastering not a particular skill set but a new way of seeing: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes,” he famously wrote, “but in having new eyes.”

So is all this “the-plan-is-dead” stuff the new, edgy buzz in nonprofit organizational leadership?


You have to smile at the fact, however, that the currently popular “plans are useless, planning is everything” quote is attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower. Once we understand the fundamental shift inherent in his 60-year-old advice, however, we will be ready to adapt to whatever curveballs the twenty-first century sees fit to throw.