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  • Otto Reinisch

Before Dusting Off Your Strategic Plan...Do This First

Updated: Mar 16

The best nonprofit leaders did for us what strategic planning never could in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. They took risks, they acted quickly, and they provided hope for a better tomorrow. Now, with more change on the horizon, here’s why leadership – not a return to your strategic plan – is the best way forward.

Nonprofit organizations that thrive amid uncertainty share three things in common. They innovate, they’re nimble, and they inspire others to act. This is the work of leadership. And, it’s why strategic planning didn’t – and couldn’t – prepare us for the pandemic’s unprecedented challenges.

Over time, strategic planning has become a problem-solving exercise that identifies, then responds to, organizational “weaknesses”. It culminates in a detailed to-do list delegated to only a few. Despite its reputation, strategic planning favors ‘tried-and-true’ answers and rarely leads to real, meaningful change.

With more uncertainty ahead, here’s why leadership – not a return to your old strategic plan – is the best way forward in a rapidly changing world.

Leaders create

The pandemic challenged us in new, yet unforeseen ways and the future promises more of the same. Answers will come from visionary leaders who, like the late Robert Kennedy, “dream of things that never were, and say why not.”

“Formal [strategic] planning…has been and always will be dependent on the preservation and rearrangement of established categories,” writes Harvard Business School Professor, Henry Mintzberg. “Real strategic change requires not merely rearranging established categories, but inventing new ones.”

Leaders innovate; they don’t ‘rearrange’ the past. Leadership is an intuitive process that synthesizes learning from many sources. And, it always begins with the question, “What if…?”

Leaders act

Leaders put dreams into motion. They move quickly and decisively in times of crisis, experimenting often…and sometimes failing. But, they keep trying and encourage others to do the same.

Leaders create an organizational culture that encourages risk-taking, unleashing the power of change constrained by strategic planning’s artificial timetables and deadlines. Whereas planning assigns responsibility for tasks to others, leaders always know that, despite the risks, ‘the buck stops’ with them.

Leaders inspire

Through the hard decisions they make, leaders ‘breathe life’ into values that, like iron, are tested and forged in fire. These closely held beliefs are the roadmaps and guard rails leaders use to chart a steady course when others choose an easier, safer path. Too often, however, defining our values is relegated to the board as a mere academic exercise as part of a strategic planning.

These values also inspire others to action in times of change. And, leaders know how their own actions will inspire future generations that look back at how – and why – they responded to the pandemic’s challenges.

Leadership: Moving Forward Into the Unknown

In times of uncertainty and fear, we turn to our leaders for hope. The unprecedented challenges of COVID-19 remind us that strategic planning – all planning, in fact – is a function of management. It is not the same as leadership.

Now, with even more change on the horizon, this is not time to dust off your old strategic plan. Instead, work to become the values-based leader your organization needs. Challenge the status quo, create lofty visions, take risks, and – above all else – provide hope that all shall be well.

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