To increase your strategic momentum, you need to eliminate strategic friction.
There’s nothing like a global catastrophe to jolt philanthropy into increasing its speed. Donors, foundations, and corporations quickly responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by getting money out the door faster, reducing or eliminating application and reporting processes, removing funding restrictions, and mobilizing rapid response funds.
Today it’s imperative that funders maintain and increase the momentum they’ve built in the past two years – in grantmaking, in decision-making, and especially in strategic planning.
The role of strategy is to take the present state of your philanthropy and move it to your desired future state, ideally as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, most funders move at the strategic speed of sloths.
They’ll spend a year or 18 months developing their strategy. By the time the plan is finalized it’s already out of date! And everyone is too exhausted from the process to implement it. Instead, strategy should be developed quickly (in a few weeks) and refreshed annually.
But before you can speed up strategy development, you must notice what’s slowing you down.
As you may have experienced, a variety of obstacles can get in the way of strategy development. These obstacles, impediments, and bumps in the road constitute a strategic friction for you or your organization—slowing you down and wearing you out. You must be constantly on alert and ready to address them when they find their way into your planning efforts.
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Here are some of the most common sources of strategic friction no matter what size your organization may be—from solo philanthropist to a global operation. As you review each one, take a moment to consider whether it is currently getting in the way of your own strategy formulation and, if so, what you can do to neutralize it. The first step in solving a problem is recognizing what it is.
1. Assumptions. You erroneously assume that strategy development is supposed to take a year to do, because it seems to take everyone else a year. There’s nothing that says strategy formulation is supposed to take a year, or six months, or any other fixed amount of time. Put your assumptions aside and try something new. Why not try to set your strategy in a month—or in a week, or even in a day or two? You might be surprised at how quickly you can get the job done when you and your team are fully focused on it.
2. Excessive data gathering. I find that often, with lengthy strategic planning processes, what’s really sucking up a lot of time is lengthy data gathering at the front end. Environmental scans, learning tours, listening sessions, commissioning research, evaluations, focus groups, board self-assessments, and so on. While gathering data, understanding community needs, and identifying best practices is critical, you can’t let it get out of hand.
I suggest two things to help ensure that data gathering doesn’t slow you down. First, separate “data gathering” from “strategy formulation”—the former should inform the latter. Both don’t need to be lumped into one “strategic planning” bucket. Second, if you are taking the time to continually learn, then you shouldn’t have to embark on a one-off data gathering exercise to prepare for strategy formulation. You should be able to gather quickly and easily information you already have.
3. Process is the tail that wags the outcome dog. Back to that one-year strategic planning process: You naturally schedule monthly planning meetings that ultimately have little to show for them until you’re close to the end—when everything finally comes together in a flurry of activity. Instead of scheduling monthly planning meetings that do little more than fill the space on your calendar for an entire year, why not devote two entire days to the effort? This focused effort is much more efficient than an unfocused approach that extends over a prolonged period.
4. Scheduling. I was once involved in a strategy development process in which the two-day, off-site strategy retreat was postponed for four months simply due to the difficulty of finding a date when all board members, the executive team, and I were able to travel across the country and spend those two days together. This happens—in fact, it’s almost expected when you’ve got the schedules of a lot of busy people to try to coordinate. And it’s also why an annual, one-day refresh is better—you can plan for and schedule it a year ahead!
5. Creating elaborate RFP processes to hire consultants to conduct strategic planning. Let’s say you decide that it would be beneficial to hire a consultant to help guide your strategy work. Good idea! But then you spend three months coming up with a detailed RFP that identifies in great detail every single activity you wish the consultant to do (as if you weren’t hiring an expert—someone who will bring their own ideas, methodology, and experience to the table). You spend two months obtaining and reviewing proposals, and another month approving the contract. Six months after you started the RFP process, you are finally ready to start developing your strategy. If you had streamlined the process of hiring a consultant in the first place, the whole thing could have been done by then.
6. Consultants who are paid by the hour. In my experience, most consultants are mission-driven, honest, and don’t “make work” just to earn higher fees. But it can’t be denied that when consultants bill by the hour or day, it’s in their own best interest to recommend lengthy, complex processes that increase billable hours. I know some who do. Be alert to this potential problem, and don’t hesitate to talk with your consultant about their chosen approach. Too often people complexify the simple, when we should simplify the complex!
7. Bells and whistles. There is so much weight put into the idea of a strategic plan that it can be incredibly difficult to muster the courage to pull the trigger and take the first steps toward action. In philanthropy, the strategic plan has become the holy grail of social transformation—we expect compelling and well-written prose, eye-catching infographics, and complex theories of change. In reality, the simpler the plan, the more likely you are to actually get it done—and to succeed in developing strategies that will help you achieve your mission. I encourage my clients to summarize it onto a one- or two-page Word document. Don’t waste time and money adding all the bells and whistles that look great but don’t contribute to the likelihood that you’ll actually do what you say you’ll do. Leave them on the cutting-room floor.
Being an effective philanthropist is already challenging enough: dismantling racist systems within and outside your institutions, working across issues and communities, generating innovations, and learning from grantees doing critical work on the ground. In addition to all you’ve learned and adapted to in the past two years, also remove these seven barriers to strategic success. While so many things about your work remain outside of your control these seven issues are firmly within grasp. By changing these beliefs and behaviors immediately you’ll remove unnecessary friction and increase your impact velocity!