A Reluctant Planner

November 22, 2016

I’ve spent many years helping groups of people, in formal organizations or around a cause, to anticipate the future and try to get something done. The formal term for this is planning, and strategic planning signifies to me that we are using our thinking caps about context and choices as we look forward.

In a time where disruption is real, when change is rapid and profound, and where the inequalities of the past show up immediately in the present, I’ve been thinking about all the planning I’ve done. Leaders of nonprofits often express to me the pressures of the complexity they are managing and say they need a “roadmap” to help guide them through this. Their board chairs explain the uniqueness of their organizations and constituency, and tell me that they need to be on the path to “sustainability.” Both these needs, these nonprofit leaders hope, will be met with a planning exercise.

I’m often worried that I won’t deliver what they want. We are looking at a very interesting but dense obstacle course, rather than a glossy roadmap, and instead of the comfort of sustainability we are busy slogging through the work of figuring out positioning and strategy to mitigate risk and build capacity.

I am a reluctant planner because I sense that a nonprofit’s planning work is too often sought to be a symbol of certainty and control, rather than directional guidance that needs to be thought about and adapted into action every day. In planning engagements, we can be at risk of identifying the obvious, burying the true challenges by creating overly complicated scenarios, and peppering ourselves with an overload of information that is not inherently meaningful. And planning processes can just take too long: reflection and ideation is essential, but the value of planning is to return stronger to a world whirling by with opportunities and risks.

So what’s a reluctant planner to do? I rediscover the benefit of planning as I hear organizations articulate their value and commitment to their communities, and the imperative that presses them to prepare for the future to best serve that community. CRE has helped a generation of community based organizations to survive and thrive using planning tools. With this in mind, I’ve put together a few ideas to keep in mind when engaging in planning and strategy development:

  1. Make sure we are talking about the right things, the important things. There are many techniques to help us surface and decide on what is important to our community’s future. Use these tools to uncover more, and different, perspectives, while exercising judgment about what is critical to your organization. Use your collective intelligences to uncover things not yet articulated that will impact your agency’s future. Be brave and open in discovery of what’s important.
  2. Give up on the idea we can know everything in order to accurately predict the future. In an organizational context, unless data and its interpretation are used to influence decision-making, we can waste a lot of time chasing it. Instead, we need to obtain and confront the relevant and focused information that raises the stakes of what we observe is changing, gets us to analyze and play with critical factors as leverage to change, and might even remind us of things we already know we need to do.
  3. If nothing is uncomfortable in thinking about the future, then we might be off track. Planning can help us examine our assumptions, be generative in creative ways, allow for unusual perspectives that spark ideas, or challenge our orthodoxies – any of which can be unsettling. On the other hand, let’s reduce our anxiety about the unknowns of planning because, actually, most things will stay the same. Planning is not always a revolution either, and on the whole, a lot of the day to day activities in a workplace will stay the same
  4. Focus on action, action, action. Planning and strategy development is about what we’ll DO in the world. Make sure to shift early from ideas to implementation, to close the gap between planning and doing.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind as we navigate forward is to help everyone involved to believe in the future. It’s always helpful to envision where we’re going together. Our communities have deep wells of imagination for a better world, and this optimism is a key factor when enacting change for our organizations and community.

By Affiliate Consultant, Carolyn Sauvage-Mar

En Español »