How to Make Sure Your Strategic Plan Does Not Fail

by | Jun 29, 2021 | Strategic Planning

Have you completed a strategic planning process only to realize something (or everything) was not working?

Are you preparing to engage in a strategic planning process for the first time and fear it could be a waste of time or money?

If so, this post will help you understand the most common reasons strategic plans fail and equip you with practical tips and tools to set up your team for success.

Studies show 67% of nonprofits report their strategic plans failed, and more than 90% of for-profit businesses admit that they fail to meet their strategic targets. (Harvard Business Review)

Those statistics are daunting, but understanding WHY your plan might fail is the first step to ensuring it will not!

Top 5 Reasons Strategic Plans Fail

1. Leaders commit to drafting a one-time strategic plan versus engaging in ongoing strategic thinking.

Many nonprofits approach the strategic planning process as an “event.” Organizers at the board or staff level encourage even the most resistant team members to jump headfirst into hypothetical conversations about future goals and map out concrete steps for getting from point A to point B. The desired end-product  is a nicely typed document with a bow and board approval on top!

What could possibly go wrong? 

To begin with, humans can plan for a specific future but certainly cannot predict it or even dictate it. Most teams are comfortable acknowledging current realities and mapping out goals and strategies for the next three to five years. Goals, strategies, timelines are all typed in black in white. 

However, the world around us is constantly changing. New challenges and opportunities emerge that require teams to think strategically and adapt strategies to achieve the greater vision. When the document is accepted as the “end-product,” the plan is destined to fail when the unexpected occurs.

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2. Facilitators prompt planning processes from the present to future 

It is difficult to clarify direction and gain momentum when the team is stuck in the present moment and cannot agree on the destination.  Without a clear and shared vision, an organization cannot inspire leaders and stakeholders to work towards common goals. An environment scan is a valuable way to clarify “Where are we now.” However, strictly working from the present (here) to the future (there) limits possibilities that arise when you work backward.

Even asking the simple question “where are we going?” can invite a lack of clarity because “going” implies motion instead of a concrete destination.”  Many teams fail to ask the more relevant question, “Where do we want to BE in 3-5 years?” so they can work backward from there.

3. Participants focus on WHAT we plan to do and fail to focus on HOW

Teams can get distracted by planning activities and fail to consider common strategies that move the organization closer to stated goals. Participants in planning processes often complain that the plan is either “too subjective” or “too detailed,” meaning nonprofits struggle to find a healthy balance. 

For example: A nonprofit focused on leveraging sustainability might state, “Our goal is to diversify funding streams by 2025.”  However, they fail to dig deeper to define specific success indicators and the core  strategic directions that will move the organization closer to goals.

4. Teams fail to achieve consensus

When the board, staff, and stakeholders cannot agree on shared priorities, a strategic plan tends to become a point of contention instead of a helpful roadmap. 

Many organizations feel that achieving consensus requires that 100% of decision-makers enthusiastically agree on future goals, strategies, activities, and timelines. 

Lack of consensus results in a lack of ownership. Lack of ownership often manifests in apathy, internal conflict, loss of momentum, and failure to achieve goals.

5. Organizations refuse to follow through

Nonprofits often feel relieved after completing the written plan but fail to make sure all team members understand and implement the strategies.  

Harvard Business Review reports “[…] 85% of executive leaders spend less than one hour per month discussing strategy, and 50% spend no time at all!”

Leaders are often quicker to omit or edit goals than to implement accountability processes to ensure team members are actively and efficiently contributing towards strategic plan goals.

There are many “right ways” to approach the strategic planning process, and it is essential to recognize that “one size does not fit all.” 

Regardless of the methods you adopt or the person you select to facilitate the process; the following best practices will contribute to a plan that works both for you and with you.

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Top 5 Tips to Plan for Success

1. Commit to an Intentional Process

The strategic planning process does not have to be a stressful, long-drawn-out process to qualify as “thorough.” 

Prep works might require:

a. An environmental scan

b. Review of the organization’s vision and mission. (Modify and approve if needed!)

c. Conversations and collection of stakeholder feedback (Scope varies per organization)

d. Determine WHO should participate in the different phases of the strategic planning process and HOW to engage them (pre-planning, retreat, implementation phase, etc.)

e. Schedule and plan logistics for a strategic planning retreat designed to engage leadership at the board and staff level. 

Most strategic visioning and planning processes can be completed in a one, two, or three-day retreat, depending on the organization’s size and scope of work you wish to prioritize. 

An experienced facilitator should be able to guide your diverse leadership team through the following two core questions during the retreat:

a. Where do we want to be in 3-5 years?

b. How do we get there?

2. Ensure Buy-In 

The best way to secure buy-in is to answer the question, “Who has the power to impact our ability to achieve our goals and what matters to them?” 

It is important to acknowledge that this “power” might come in the form of positive or negative influence. Rather than get bogged down by long lists and processes, focus on engaging those core players in the portions of the planning process that are most meaningful and impactful. 

For example, you might conduct a survey or brainstorming session with stakeholders to help identify community priorities.  You might engage current or potential partners in conversations to determine which of your priorities they are most likely to support or reject. If only executive-level staff members participate in the formal planning retreat, it is wise to consider brainstorming sessions with support staff, so their ideas are brought to the table.

3. Capture a Shared Practical Vision

Goals are great, but they are even more inspiring when expressed in the context of a greater vision. A well-balanced visioning session will allow participants to “dream big” while still establishing an attainable vision.  

It is important to recognize everyone in the room brings unique perspectives and priorities. 

Once those individual ideas have been captured, the most successful teams will engage the group in consensus-building activities to discuss, organize, and put words to “the shared vision.”

Essentially the vision components capture the essence of what you hope to achieve while goals outline specific metrics that will serve as success indicators.

Sample vision: New state of the art facility

The team can then work backward from that future goal to create specific goals, strategies, and timelines.

4. Define Success Indicators

Organizations often adopt subjective vision phrases such as the following: 

By 2025 we will have…

a. A robust and sustainable organization

b. Active and diverse leadership

c. Consistent and quality programs

These vision statements are inspiring but open to interpretation. Teams must build on these by digging a little bit deeper to define success indicators. 

The most practical question to pose is, “How will we know that we have achieved this?”

5. Bridge the gap between producing strategies and executing them

Strategic plans should be treated as live breathing documents. This means nonprofits must prioritize the visioning and consensus-building process to make sure everyone understands and agrees on the essence of the plan. 

he strategies portion of your plan might make perfect sense in your current reality. However, as time passes and the plan is implemented, your team might realize that original strategies are no longer the most viable ones.  

If your team understands the intent behind the original strategies, they are better equipped to ensure that the entire plan does not get hijacked or abandoned when life throws a curveball. 

This adaptability in execution allows the team to keep your strategic plan current and relevant  

Nonprofits should be prepared to invest in the process, not just the end product.

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