Is Your Strategy Moving in Slow Motion?
To increase your strategic momentum, you must eliminate any strategic friction slowing you down – here are 7 barriers to consider removing.
There’s nothing like a global catastrophe to jolt your philanthropy into taking bolder steps toward change. Donors, foundations, and purpose-driven corporations quickly responded to the pandemic by getting money out the door faster, reducing or eliminating application and reporting processes, removing funding restrictions, and mobilizing rapid response funds.
Moving forward, it’s critical that funders maintain and increase the momentum they’ve developed over the past two and a half years – in grantmaking, 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 grantmakers move at the strategic speed of snails.
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 By the time the plan is finalized, it’s already out of date!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.
Before you can speed up strategy development, you must take notice of what’s slowing you down.
As you may have experienced, a variety of obstacles can get in the way of strategy development. These barriers, hurdles, and bumps in the road constitute 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.
Here are seven of the most common sources of strategic friction no matter what size your organization is—from a solo philanthropist to a global philanthropy. 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 can hinder your success. It’s easy to mistakenly 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 should take a year, 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. Too much data can be problematic. 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 stand in the way of execution.
I recommend 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 assemble quickly and easily the 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 and subcommittee 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 a bunch of planning meetings that do little more than filling 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 can be a nightmare. I once facilitated a foundation’s 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. Complicated 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 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. Philanthropy consultants paid by the hour. In my experience, most consultants are mission-driven, honest, and don’t “create 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 philanthropy consultant about their chosen approach.
7. Glitz and glam. 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 truth, the simpler the plan, the more likely you are to actually get it done—and to succeed in implementing strategies that will help you achieve your mission. I encourage my foundation clients to summarize their strategy in a one- or two-page Word document. Don’t waste time and money adding all the glitz and glam that looks great but doesn’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 few years, also consider removing 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!
Whether you’re developing your strategy for the first time, looking to refresh an existing one, undertaking a dramatic shift, or need to rapidly implement your strategy, I can help. Just schedule a call with me today! And to learn more about my strategic services, click here.
© 2022 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.