August 19, 2018

The Importance of Strategy Sessions

This article was originally published in the Nonprofit Hub Magazine.

With the new year freshly upon us, it’s a great time to plan your next long-term strategy meeting. Not only do these broad-stroke meetings help put last year into perspective, but they clear the fog of what’s in store for your organization’s future. Developing a comprehensive strategy is no quick task, and while the meetings may seem to consume entire days of work, their benefits are essential for transforming dreams into realities.

Shareholder buy-in

Shareholders are people on your board of directors, your senior staff, key supporters, beneficiaries and the rest of the major players surrounding your organization. If you intend to roll out a company-wide strategy plan, these will be the people leading the charge. They have a complex understanding of the inner-workings of your organization and are vital to lean on when planning a strategy meeting.

By involving all of your shareholders in the process, you have the opportunity to give them creative ownership of the ideas generated in strategy meetings. Additionally, including shareholders ensures that the plans you’re putting in place have widespread support. It gives them personal attachment to the ideas, driving an urge to see their portion of the comprehensive plan come to fruition.

In order to enable shareholders to the best of their abilities, ensure that your strategy is fully understood by all. Through forming a clear, collaborative strategy with your organization’s leaders, stakeholders are able to take the institutional strategy and properly implement it within their department. This allows for a coordinated, yet independent effort from the different divisions of your organization.

Conversation vs. Discussion

Simone Joyaux, an accredited board consultant, fundraising expert and speaker at this year’s Cause Camp, said she thought one of the biggest problems with strategic planning is communication.

“People don’t know how to have conversations,” Joyaux said. “They know how to have discussions, and there’s a difference.” While the two words may seem identical, having a discussion and having a conversation fall into two distinct categories.

Discussion comes naturally to most. In discussions, there is no meeting of minds. Advocates for each position face off to prove why their idea is the better option. Each side may be listening to the other, but they’re generally too busy advocating their own position. Disagreement between two opposing sides is normal, as most of us were taught to argue for one opinion or the other. It’s easier to argue over what idea is better or worse when there are only a few options to choose from.

Conversations, on the other hand, require intentional open-mindedness, and, like any skill, it must be constantly practiced. Instead of arguing for a specific side, during a conversation the focus is on the assumptions made behind each idea. Since everyone has their own life experiences, it’s only natural that everyone has their own unique value system. Joyaux says she believes that in a good conversation we should ask open-ended questions to generate conversation within a safe environment. Finding those questions, however, is not as easy as it first would seem.

“It’s one thing to know what it is you don’t know and try learn it,” Joyaux said. “ It’s an entirely different thing to not know is needed and having to find it. That is what keeps us from asking the real cage-rattling questions.”

By defining the aspects that the group finds most important, a conversation can take two ideas, pull apart what makes the ideas valuable, and form a tailored solution that neither side had thought of in the first place.

Goal prioritization

If everything is important, then nothing is important. After brainstorming comes the hardest task of all: determining which ideas will make it all the way to the strategic plan. While there are limitless good ideas, nonprofits know all too well that they often rely on scarce resources, allowing only a select few to be chosen.

In the selection process consider how ambitious each idea is. Goals need to strike a fine balance between being bold enough to inspire your organization, yet practical enough to accomplish in a reasonable timeframe. Strategies without reasonable objectives often result in rolling out an underdeveloped final product, while plans that aren’t revolutionary enough result in no noticeable changes to your organization.

When refining goals, it’s easy to get caught up in the minor details. Strategic meetings are not the place to decide the specific way objectives should be implemented; you have to trust your stakeholders to execute their portion of an institutional-wide strategy through the use of their own management styles. By creating goals that have divisible tasks for each branch of your organization, informed shareholders are able to institute a system-wide strategic plan without micromanaging ideas during a strategy meeting.

Remember: things change

Plans almost always change after they get put in motion. It’s impossible to be ready for every contingency without a crystal ball, so your strategic plan has to be flexible. There’s no use in making a three-year plan with specific details about your third quarter of the second year because the environment is constantly changing. Strategies need wiggle room in order to adapt to different situations. And sometimes it becomes necessary to cut out entire sections of a plan if they’re no longer viable. By giving your shareholders the liberty to change plans when executing, they can bring day-to-day know-how to your yearly plan.

Your shareholders are some of the most valuable assets you have at your disposal when implementing strategic plans. While a strategies can’t always plan out the foreseeable future, they allow leaders to recognize emerging weaknesses and respond with informed solutions. Overarching strategies guide your leaders and organization towards your mission, but informed shareholders translate goals into daily operations.

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