Strategic Planning Published Date, 2022

Burn The Ships: We Need A New Approach To Planning

Created By: Craig Shelley, CFRE
December 10, 2020

As legend has it, during the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the Spanish commander Hernan Cortes scuttled his ships so that his men would have to conquer or die. I once worked closely with a board chair who used to constantly implore us to metaphorically do the same. To stop looking to the past for solutions and to charge forward and take the risks necessary to truly reinvent our organization. Over the past 10-months this advice, to proverbially burn the ships, has echoed in my thoughts and come to life in my actions. The pandemic has taught us that when laying plans, whether they be specific to fundraising or designed with larger organizational, programmatic, or operational goals in mind, a reliance on what we have done and know from the past has never been less predictive of the future.

In recent history we have come to rely on some basic premises in approaching strategic planning including a reliance on long-term and achievable goals, a need to build consensus and a certainty that past performance will illustrate the trend lines for future success. In our current environment, I think these assumptions will only lead us astray. We need to be guided by new assumptions when creating strategic plans of all types.

Go Long on Vision but Short on Specifics

The idea of a five-year plan has never seemed more laughable. There is not one single professional assumption I had on March 15th that I still believe today. That was nine-months ago; no one can predict what we will be doing in five-years. Yet, that became the norm in strategic planning largely dictated by planning investments and timelines. As has happened to many norms, the pandemic just accelerated our understanding of something that was already becoming true. The world is changing too quickly to plan what you will be doing in five-years. You can set forth an overall vision, a north star, that remains true for five-years and beyond but investing time in planning operational details and benchmarks much beyond two-years seems to be a fool’s errand. Five-years had arbitrarily become the norm for strategic planning. Adjusting to shorter time frames and essentially being in a perpetual state of strategic planning needs to become the norm in forward thinking organizations.

Your Vision Needs to be Bigger

This is not a time for small thinking or incremental change. It does not meet the moment; it does not meet the needs of your community and constituents, and it will not capture the attention of prospective donors. The world has changed dramatically around us showing us that radical change is possible. If your organization, and your plans, are not geared towards the biggest change imaginable, why not? In setting organizational strategy, look at your mission, step back and understand what the ultimate manifestation of that mission looks like, declare that as your goal and start building your plans accordingly. The nonprofit sector will always need planners, but this is a moment for them to be in service to the dreamers. Everything needs to be on the table.

Plan and Then be Flexible

Early in the pandemic, I observed that the most successful leaders were those who were willing to be wrong and start fresh with a new plan when circumstances required. More eloquently, a nonprofit CEO recently told me that when planning, he always tries to ensure he has room to U-turn out of any roads he goes down. Flexibility, historically the enemy of strategic planning, now needs to be a feature. The pandemic has made the word “pivot” a punchline but only because those who can do it are still capable of laughing. An argument against the shorter timeframes for strategic planning I suggest above, is that it will perpetuate a state of constant planning. However, the need to be flexible can be best served by constantly being in this mindset. A dedicated group that is always building the next plan should also be constantly evaluating and recommending adjustments to this one.

The last year has thrown challenges at nonprofit leaders that none of us would have ever expected. I think that is going to be our new permanent state. We can only survive and thrive in that state by “burning the ships”; the safety of what we have known is gone and the only options available are to move forward in new and aggressive ways. If we are to think different, we need to plan different.

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