Strategic Thinking

Strategy is Not Planning

Strategy is a set of choices that will shift your situation from one state to another one.

Nonprofit leaders know that strategy is really a set of explicit choices about future direction. It involves reframing problems and challenging assumptions if the organization seeks a real breakthrough, not a counterfeit one.


Strategic planning one-offs is the default nonprofit change management solution. But if there's sweeping consensus that the world is always in rapid flux, and that nonprofits need the ability to handle unanticipated events along the way, then strategy and tactics cannot be locked within yearly timeframes.

Strategy is a creative act. Why freeze strategy within those timeframes? The paradox is that the results of your choices aren't readily apparent until you actually do it.

Why not expose new skills, methods, tools, and processes to reiterate and adjust strategy and tactics on an everyday basis?

A few observations:

  • In practice, strategy is just a set of creative choices.
  • Too many nonprofits, NGOs, and charities think strategy equals planning.
  • Strategy involves the capability to make adjustments and pivot strategy and tactics as necessary

This has been researched and documented by major thought leaders in the field, including Dr. Min Basadur, Roger Martin, Edward de Bono et al.

According to Roger Martin, when leaders seek strategy, it tends to get paired with "a plan." A plan is simply an outcome of strategy.

Strategy is not just a vision, an optimization of the status quo, or obeying "best practices." Unless that's explicitly what you want.

Strategy is not Planning

Take a cue from Roger Martin in "Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works"

Strategy is not just a vision, a plan, optimizing the status quo, or obeying best practices. Strategy is a set of tough choices that will help your nonprofit make real breakthough progress every time. What if the only breakthrough is to break the rules and question "best practices?"

Observe the strategic planning process used to help your nonprofit make their choices.

  • Are these simple, clear, yet well-defined choices?
  • Are big questions really getting discussed?
  • Does it question assumptions?
  • Is it truly participatory and divergent, or just more of the same?
  • Are participants encouraged to make calculated risks, place small bets, and make hard choices?
  • Does your straegic plan process end up with action plans in hand?

The Divide: What We Think it is versus How to Create it

Strategy means so many things to many people: A Vision, Values, Goals, Priorities, a set of initiatives, a SWOT, a bunch a KPIs, Action Plans.

Strategy is inherently a creative process. So you want to think about the process of how participants are creating their strategic choices.

Believe no one who touts "innovation-speak, but then refuses to encourage experimentation, small bets, changing their minds, taking on new opportunities, generating new ideas, or pivoting strategic direction.

The reality is that you need to do all of the above. Don't just say, believe, or jockey for co-creative strategy. Be authentic enough to do it and perform it with others.

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