Aligning Culture

Aligning Nonprofit Strategic Planning With Culture

There are literally hundreds of thousands of resources on strategic planning strategies that can be referenced by a simple Google search and, in an old-school fashion, a decent library catalog will contain a plethora of books devoted to the subject. So why do we need another blog series on strategic planning? My goal is not to teach strategic planning but to help teams and agencies think critically about the strategic planning process. The “how” question has been answered clearly and is, quite frankly, less important than the process questions of “who,” “why,” “so what,” and “what’s next?”  I have been sketching this series for a few weeks but the need was reinforced recently when I was talking with a fairly new Executive Director of an established nonprofit agency.  She and I were discussing her organizational needs and she commented that when she was going through the files of her predecessor she found several strategic plans that had been developed over the years.  Her comment to me was, “you know, all of the plans were remarkably similar and basically contained the same game plan with the same end goals and objectives.”  The point could not be made any clearer.  Most organizations know how to develop a strategic plan (or know how to hire a consultant to help them).  At the same time, how many of these teams and organizations spend time in self-reflection and inquiry to figure out the role of strategic planning –beyond the crude recognition that everyone needs a strategic plan and that plans need to be updated periodically.  So moving from planning to action is the basis of this series of blog posts. In this post, I want to develop an understanding of the role of planning frameworks and culture in strategic planning.

At the foundation level, all strategic planning models share the same basic program planning process flow.  Models start with gathering data, making sense of the data, considering alternatives, developing goals and objectives, creating an implementation, and finally monitoring progress.  I have studied models with anywhere from 4-10 step variations of the “flow diagram” but essentially strategic planning processes are basically all the same.  Some planning models are linear while others turn straight lines into steps and others turn steps into a circular and iterative process. However, it is represented, the given of strategic planning is that it is a process that moves from “data to direction” in a sequence.  These steps comprise the “how” of strategic planning. A strategic planning framework (built upon the foundation of how) answers the deeper questions of “who,” “why,” “so what,” and “what’s next?” Frameworks need to be intentionally considered at the formative stage of strategic planning as they have the potential of significantly shaping the process.  So what are the strategic planning frameworks?  I would like to offer the following framework archetypes.

Centralized or Directed Planning Frameworks:  Employed by many companies and even some governments, a central or directed planning framework is organization and structure focused.  Often it is a top-down planning process that is hierarchical in nature.  The resulting plan is often in the voice of the organization’s leadership and can even look like the anthropomorphism of the organizational structure.  Such strategic plans focus on what has been decided and the strategic planning process is the process of announcing decisions to the staff and other stakeholders of the organization.

Self-Organizing Frameworks:  At the other end of the spectrum from centralized planning is a self-organizing framework for strategic planning.  Contemporarily represented by the Open Space Technology group process the framework is an egalitarian planning process that empowers all stakeholders to co-create strategic plans.  Grounded in the theories of empowerment education as espoused by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, the self-organized plans are bottom-up in orientation rather than top down.  People powered plans may also disrupt or challenge the current norms of operation.

Future-Referenced Frameworks:  While many strategic planning models peer into the future as part of considering alternatives and/or prioritizing options, future-referenced processes like scenario planning and outcome mapping reflect a framework that focuses on envisioning and creating a future.  Such plans that are future focused shift the process of data collection and sorting from using “historical known data to present data” to using “present data and future-referenced data.” Plans emerging from a future referenced frame often contain evolutionary “DNA” that offer degrees of freedom in responding to a changing environment.

Organizational Learning Frameworks: While the fields of organizational learning and knowledge management are not typically associated with strategic planning, there is increasing interest in how strategy development and implementation is embedded in the learning and knowledge management functions of organizations.  Strategic plans emerging from this framework are likely to resemble a constructivist learning platform or curriculum.

Appreciative Inquiry Frameworks:  The final framework that I would propose is one that is based on an appreciative inquiry approach.  As another participatory framework, an appreciative inquiry is an approach to planning that is grounded in organizational self-efficacy and the strategies that build on strengths and aspirations of the organization rather than trying to dismantle or improve areas of deficit.

As I suggested in the opening of this blog the purpose of this article is not to detail how you would implement these frameworks. Indeed, each of these frameworks outlined has a distinct body of literature connected to them and require some study before being implemented well.   Rather, I would like to suggest what I think these diverse approaches mean to the consideration of strategic planning.  I believe that there are two primary points.

First, each of these frameworks implies an organizational culture.  Centralized planning suggests a different culture than a self-organizing or organizational learning culture. In selecting a strategic planning framework it needs to be aligned with the existing or emerging organizational culture.  I have seen hierarchical organizations try to experiment with people-centric frameworks like “organizational learning” or “open space technology” but unless there is a full commitment to shifting the organizational culture the outcomes of such experiments are marginal at best.  So matching organizational culture with your strategic planning framework matters.

Second, I believe that each framework offers a distinct answer to the ultimate question of “what’s next?”  Going back to the Executive Director my opening story.  In her opinion, there was little need for yet one more round of strategic planning but the guidance she sought was around the implementation of the existing plan.  The guidance she needed was to “reverse engineer” from the strategic plan backward to a framework and culture.  In other words, the impetus and energy for moving her agency’s strategic plan off of the shelf and into action would be found in the culture and framework that she is creating within the organization.

In summary, for those considering a strategic planning process, being explicit about the framework is the task of connecting the “how” of strategic planning with the dominate culture that will give energy and life to the strategic plan.  “Anyone can create a strategic plan,” one mentor of mine once joked, “I have four of them on my shelf to prove it.“ However, creating a plan that moves your agency forward requires linking the process with a cultural framework.



Photo Credit: Michael Schwarzenberger 

Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.