Seeking a more flexible strategic plan

Strategic planning and strategy trends don’t really lend themselves to slick five-point lists of things to watch in 2015 articles. Any real shifts in the field take much longer than a year to really manifest themselves.

But there are always things to keep an eye on, which seem to pop up more often in conversation, language becoming more common over time, directions that more organizations want to take.

From my observations, one of the most important – and encouraging – trends is the rejection of a rigid, etched-in-stone approach to strategic planning.

People talk about wanting plans they can really use, that become part of how they do things. Organizations want strategic agreement at the board and senior leadership level about what’s really important – and what’s not. Staff and volunteers want to be guided by plans, but not hogtied.

This reflects discussions in the for-profit world. There’s a whole new crop of management thinking moving the conversation about strategy (finally!) into the new millennium. Google thinks about having a firm strategic foundation, with a flexible plan on top of it, in large part as a way to attract and retain the talent that’s so critical to its growth and innovation. (Skip to slide 32 in the link to see their strategic framework, but it’s a great slideshow overall.)

It’s great to talk about the yearning for a more responsive approach to strategic planning. What’s less clear is how exactly to make that happen.

How do we wind up with plans that feel like they gum up the system, rather than enabling success?


Let’s start with the “shelfware” plan. Even if there is wide consultation to write it, once it’s approved, it’s utterly forgotten. Nothing in the organization changes, nobody does anything differently. (OK, maybe someone puts something on the website.)

How can you tell you have this kind of plan? Well, what’s your strategy? Does this question send you dusting off reports on the top shelf of your bookcase, or searching the far reaches of the shared drive? Bingo.

If we’re honest, the “shelfware” plan can be very appealing. If you’re a charismatic leader, if you want to have as much room as possible to do your own thing, and the “shelfware” plan allows you to do this. When nobody in the organization is holding each other accountable, as the leader, you can set your own agenda.

But on the other hand, nobody in the organization really knows what the strategy is. Given a choice between two alternatives, volunteers and staff will make those choices based on their own gut instinct, their own experience, and their own self-interest. Or they won’t make a choice at all (which of course is still making a choice). There may be guidance from the leader, but that may change depending on circumstances or audience, risking inefficiency, politicization, disaffected staff, and, overall, an organization lacking healthy systems.


The other kind of rigid plan is a complex, bureaucratic plan that we associate with large corporations, but can show up in the smallest organizations. This plan doesn’t live on a shelf – it lives in the goriest of gory details of implementation.

The plan itself is long, complex, and – here’s where it becomes a problem – cumbersome.

We can grow into this kind of plan by accident, just because we want to be on top of things. And certainly, there’s nothing wrong with having solid tracking systems, or with ironing out implementation details.

But it becomes part of the problem if it ossifies – if there is no changing it, just because It Is The Plan.

This will appeal to a leader who wants to maintain a great deal of control. And it can seem reassuring if there are conflicts between the board and the staff – there’s a reassuringly long and detailed document to show what’s happening (but not necessarily whether it’s been effective).

The risk is, what if something changes? What if you discover an unanticipated opportunity? What if things move faster than you can track? With a plan like this, if you pull on one small thread, everything else is affected. It works all together, or it starts to look frayed and distorted. And the cost of maintaining such a complex planning system (tracking, reporting, updating…) isn’t always worthwhile.


So, how can we create strategic plans that actually make an impact on the organization, without creating a massive burden and tying our hands when we most need to be creative?

Some (partial) ideas to move in this direction:

  • Think strategies, not strategic plans. It’s about the decisions you make, not the documents you write. Have genuinely strategic conversations among the leadership. Articulate what you will have to do to be successful in achieving your mission, based on what you know to be true, and what you believe to be possible. It’s surprising how often this step gets skipped over to jump to the details.
  • Think about how you’re going to measure success from the get-go. Identify the measures that matter for you, and use them to keep you focused, but flexible. If one way to achieve the measures isn’t working out, you know how to evaluate alternatives.
  • Set milestones in advance to revisit the plan – the board should talk about it annually, at least, and staff as well. Assess what’s different for you and why. Evaluate your success based on your measures. Figure out whether there’s anything that should stop, start or change based on current realities.
  • Embed the plan into your organization, not by creating a separate entity (The Plan), but by changing the organization you already have. The strategies should drive how you evaluate your success (as an organization overall, and the chief staff officer’s performance). Initiatives should be incorporated into staff job descriptions and performance management systems, committee terms of reference, and reporting. And obviously, your budget and operational plans should be all about achieving your strategies.

Fundamentally, flexible strategic planning means thinking of the plan as just a way to capture the strategies and how you’re going to implement them. The documentation of the plan isn’t the point. A clear understanding across the organization of your strategies to enable success – that’s the point.

How flexible is your plan? How flexible should it be? And how can your organization take steps in that direction?

Meredith Low is the Principal of Meredith Low Consulting. Her firm works with associations and businesses on strategic and tactical planning, member and prospect research, metrics and reporting, conference assessment, and other strategic projects. Reach her at [email protected].