Strategic planning: An overview, our insider insights and how to do it well
A strategic plan is an organisation’s guiding light. It sets out why an organisation exists, its priorities and goals for the coming years, and what brings the team together. This supports decision-making and activity at all levels so the organisation is clear about what it will and won’t focus upon, and what behaviours and ways of working are expected.
In the for-purpose sector, a strategic plan is particularly important because it articulates the wicked social or environmental problem (or opportunity) being addressed and an organisation’s role in solving that issue. For example, a not-for-profit might be working towards a society in which everyone is safe and housed, and their specific focus is upon supporting those experiencing homelessness who are living and sleeping on the street.
Many organisations now have a one-page version of their strategy that conveys their key concepts as well as a more detailed strategic plan. The length of a strategic plan can range from one page to 100 pages or more. We find that strategies from five to 15 pages tend to be a good length as they are compelling and accessible, whilst also containing some of the key detail.
Different people use different words for the components of a strategic plan but, in our experience, it generally boils down to the following elements.
|Vision||Our big aspiration. What we are seeking to achieve.|
|Mission or purpose||How, at a high level, we contribute to our vision. Our high level role.|
|Values or beliefs||The concepts that define our shared principles and way of working.|
|Priorities, pillars, objectives, goals or themes||The 3-5 things we will focus upon for the duration of this strategy. These can either be outcome or activity statements.|
|Initiatives or actions||The strategic projects and activities that sit under our priorities.|
|Metrics or indicators||How we will monitor and assess progress against our strategy. May also be referred to as KPIs or targets.|
In addition, there are a number of strategy components that may be included within the elements listed above or not explicitly mentioned at all.
|Cohort||The group or community that we focus our efforts upon.|
|Geography||The space or area in which we work and/or are trying to bring about change.|
|Duration||The timeframe of our strategy.|
|Altitude of play||The level(s) of the system that we operate in, such as service delivery or products, collaboration, and advocacy and system reform.|
Some strategic plans also have a section about their organisation, which may include its history, a summary of services or products, and key strengths and weaknesses. In addition, there is often a section about the external environment, which may highlight strategic trends, disruptions, predictions, opportunities, challenges and other considerations.
In our opinion, the things that define a great strategy:
Accessible and user-friendly This is about having a strategy that is easy to read and understand. Think short sentences, simple language and a clear layout. Your strategy should be accessible to everyone in your organisations, clients and customers, beneficiaries and partners. You may also want to think about how to make your strategy available to people who are blind or low vision, such as through a video format or ensuring high contrast with font colours on backgrounds.
Compelling and engaging A strategy, particularly not-for-profit strategy, should be inspiring. This is about why you exist – why your organisation is necessary or beneficial. In the for-purpose space, this is about the wicked challenges our societies are facing, and how to counter that. It can be helpful to think about whether your statements are powerful – do they convey inequality and hope?
Relatively short Long strategies have a tendency to sit on a shelf and gather dust. We find that strategies from five to 15 pages tend to be a good length as they are compelling and accessible, whilst also containing some of the key detail.
Visual and easy on the eye Densely written reams of paper also have a tendency to get shelved. So, consider how you can translate key strategy concepts into a visual format, through icons, photos and other images. Effectively using colour and white space also have an important role to play here.
To define the strategy elements listed above, organisations undertake strategic planning. Essentially, strategic planning is the process of reviewing why an organisation exists and determining key focus areas for the years ahead. This demonstrates the importance of strategic planning, with more detail provided below.
Strategy development is the responsibility of an organisation’s leadership, typically its executive team and board. However, effective strategic planning generally involves a broader range of stakeholders, such as staff, customers or clients, beneficiaries, partners, suppliers, funders, policy-makers and potentially even competitors.
There are different approaches to and types of strategic planning, and it comes in all different shapes and sizes. Strategy development includes everything from a one day workshop through to a largescale project that lasts for many months. Regardless, in general, strategic planning involves a combination of desk-based work (e.g. research and analysis) and stakeholder engagement (e.g. 1:1 conversations, small group discussions, meetings and workshops).
Define your “true north” in a compelling and accessible manner
In not-for-profit strategy, strategic planning enables you to powerfully articulate your why. By having a clearly defined “true north”, you are better placed to: recruit and retain a team that really believes in your mission; partner with organisations pursuing the same or complementary goals; clearly communicate your purpose to the community and in the media; and secure funding from government, philanthropic and corporate partners. In addition, clarity around why your organisation exists is critical in determining what you will and won’t do.
Gain valuable insights from close to home and further afield
Effective strategy development will surface helpful information about the challenges and opportunities at hand. This can be through sharing case studies of best practice or thought leadership, or providing insights about your industry, sector, region, community or organisation. These nuggets of wisdom can mean a variety of things. For some, strategic planning insights shakes up their thinking and move organisations in a new direction. For others, the information unearthed during the strategy development process further hones their focus and understanding around particular areas.
Minimise uncertainty and stay ahead of the curve
The times they are a changing, and that can be confusing and worrying. Strategic planning helps organisations sort through the disruptions and trends, and consider their implications for teams, communities and the environment. Strategic planning can also help organisations figure out how to be the disruptor, rather than the disrupted. With a plan in place around how to address challenges, which opportunities to pursue and how to navigate the rapidly changing landscape, leaders and their teams have greater clarity and less bewilderment.
Better engage your internal and external stakeholders
Having the big conversations with your stakeholders, and really listening to what they say, is a way to learn and to demonstrate how much you value them. Picking the right people to engage and crafting excellent questions and discussions points for those involved in the strategic planning process is key. Poorly written, vague or misleading questions directed means discussions are either low in energy, inefficient or irrelevant. So, think carefully about who to involve in strategy development and what to ask them.
Make better decisions at all levels of your organisation
With a set purpose, priorities and principles, all members of the team will have a clear guide to make decisions. A strategic plan is a great tool in helping leaders and staff determine what to focus their efforts upon, how to conduct themselves and how to communicate the organisation to others. The worst outcome is for a strategic plan to just be a shiny document that sits buried deep in a website or a desk drawer. It should be living and breathing, with its goals cascaded all the way through an organisation down to individual work plans. Board reporting should also align with the strategy so that Directors are having their discussions at the right altitude and they can have comfort, as custodians of the strategy, that the ship is being steered in the right direction.
If you onboard that strategy development is a vital business activity, regardless of whether you’re profit-generating or not, we’re with you. If you’re not convinced of the importance of strategic planning, leave us a comment at the end of this article – we’d love to hear your thoughts.
Strategic planning isn’t the end of the story. It’s only the beginning. Strategy implementation (also called strategy execution) is ultimately about translating your strategic plan into action. Given that strategic planning is high level in nature, strategic plans often need to be translated into operational plans. This typically happens on a quarterly or annual basis. Operational plans often include more detail about specific projects and tasks, when these will happen, who be responsible for them and what resources these undertakings require. As well as rolling out the initiatives or activities listed in your plan, many organisations will monitor, report on and evaluate performance to a range of strategic indicators or targets. It’s vital with implementation to have the balance of following a plan but also being flexible and responsive to accommodate changes – this is not always an easy path to walk.
We recommend reviewing your strategy at least annually. This is about asking yourself how you are progressing and performing, as well as whether the strategy is relevant and comprehensive. Did you miss a consideration or key stakeholder in the strategic planning process? Does something need to be added to or removed from your strategic plan?
Furthermore, and as we’ve noted already, change is happening. For many individuals, organisations and industries, that change is coming thick and fast. As such, there are other times where it might be pertinent to review your strategic plan e.g. when a crisis occurs, when a new CEO comes on board etc.
Clear objective setting helps frame the scope, purpose and outcomes of a strategic planning process. This phase is about knowing the drivers for change in strategy development, whether that be financial sustainability, increased reach or greater social impact.
At the end of this stage, you will have a clearly defined project scope and a timeline with key activities and deadlines.
To get started with your strategic planning process, we’ve outlined a number of key questions to consider:
- What does success look like for our strategic planning process?
- What does success look like for the strategy itself? Do we have a preferred length, style or other strategy characteristics in mind?
- What is the likely duration of our strategic plan?
- Are there elements of our current strategy that we want to carry forward into our new strategy?
- Who has ultimate sign off on the strategy?
- Who will drive our strategic planning process? Will strategy development be conducted by our team or facilitated by external consultants?
- Who will we engage through the strategic planning process? Will we engage our Board, Executive and broader team? Will we engage our community, beneficiaries or customers? Will we engage external partners and funders?
- How will we engage stakeholders in the strategic planning process? Will we use surveys, 1:1 discussions, focus groups, workshops?
- What does governance of our strategic planning process look like? Will we set up a project steering committee or project control board?
- What are the project risks for our strategic planning process?
Now that the creative component of your strategic planning process is done, it’s time to apply rigour and analysis to test your ideas. In the testing phase of strategy development, you can employ traditional strategic frameworks such as SWOT, PESTLE and Porter’s Five Forces to see how your initial thinking stack up. Scenario analysis can also be helpful at this stage of the strategic planning process to consider how your ideas and priorities will fare in different contexts.
By the time you’re done and dusted with the third stage, you will have a refined strategy on a page, which will act as the foundations to further detail your strategic plan.
To test your strategic planning thinking, it may be helpful to answer:
- Is the strategy helpful in guiding our decision-making? Does the strategy clarify what we will do and what we won’t do?
- Have we missed any key concepts or considerations in our draft strategy?
- Does our strategy clearly demonstrate a strong value proposition and how we are unique?
- What political, economic, sociodemographic and technological developments are relevant to our draft strategy? Does the strategy appropriately factor in and respond to these considerations?
- Are there specific scenarios we could use to test our draft strategy? This could include: a change of government; an economic, environmental or health crisis; or a new, highly effective competitor entering the market.
- Is the language and layout we have used compelling and accessible?
- How long will our strategy concepts be relevant? Is the duration of our strategy still appropriate?
Ideas are what will spark a brighter future for your organisation. This is why it makes sense to put ideas first in your strategic planning process, rather than dwell on constraints and risks at this point in time. This phase is about being creative and discussing your aspirations in the interest of exploring and unearthing bright and novel ideas.
When the second stage has been completed, you’ll have a draft one page strategy which includes your vision, mission/purpose, values and a set of strategic priorities or objectives.
This phase requires consideration of the below:
- Your organisation – what are your strengths and weaknesses? How has your organisation evolved over time?
- The external environment – what are the key trends and disruptions we need to respond to? What opportunities and challenges are there? Are there other organisations or programs we can learn from? Who are our strategic partners?
- Your vision – what is the world or society we want to live in? What problem do we exist to solve? What ultimate benefit or impact are we looking to achieve?
- Your mission or purpose – what is our role in achieving our vision / solving a particular problem? What is our core purpose? At a high level, what do we exist to do?
- Your cohort – who do we exist for? Who are our beneficiaries, clients or customers? Do we have a primary cohort that is our absolute priority?
- Your geography – where do we focus our efforts? Is our geographic remit staying the same, increasing or reducing? How does digital fit into our geography?
- Your values or beliefs – what makes our organisation unique? What beliefs and values unite us? What attitudes and behaviours brings out the best in our team?
- Your strategic planning narrative – are you seeking radical transformation or large-scale growth over the coming years? Or are you more interested in bedding down the foundations or consolidating your current position?
- Your strategic priorities or objectives – what are our top priorities for the coming years? What will we focus our efforts upon for the coming years? What will we do that’s different to prior years?
- Your altitude of play – are we providing services to individuals and/or are we working to bring about system change? How do partnerships fit into our approach?
Ideas are only as good as their best execution. This phase of the strategic planning process is about converting the high level strategic concepts into a practical action plan and indicators to measure and track performance. The challenge here is ensuring the thinking remains strategic, rather than getting into the nuts and bolts of operational planning.
There are two key areas to consider in the action planning phase of strategy development:
- Initiatives or actions – how can we implement our priorities? What should we start, stop and keep doing?
- Metrics or indicators – how will we know we are progressing and performing? What can we track to assess whether we are being successful? What indicates we are effectively implementing our strategic plan?
Once you have run through these four steps of the strategic planning process, you’ll have a clear sense of your vision, purpose and values as well as the priorities and the associated initiatives and indicators. In addition, you’ll have a solid understanding of your own organisational strengths and weaknesses, and considerations arising from the external environment. This content can then be shaped into a full strategic plan, which generally ranges from five pages to 25 pages in length.
We work with our clients, not to them. We believe that bringing people together is the way to spark new solutions and models. That’s why our process is heavily workshop and interview-based, complemented by ample “behind the scenes” rigour and analysis. We use a range of consulting tools (without the consultant-speak!) throughout the strategic planning process to elicit and test ideas. Many of these tools and methodologies can be shared with employees to be used beyond the scope of the strategy development project.
From facilitated workshops to comprehensive strategic plans, our approach is centered on value-based design and we begin with defining your unique value proposition. Whatever the project scope, we work with our clients in a bespoke manner drawn on our proven ideas-led approach. Ultimately, our focus is on developing practical, sustainable strategies that are cutting edge, inspiring and achievable. True to our principles of value-driven design, our creative approach is supplemented by research, analysis, and action planning, which ensures that the inspiring ideas generated can be practically achieved, rather than ending up lost in a glossy report.
The majority of the strategic planning work we do is full strategy development. This is when organisations want to develop a new strategy and do so in a way that is comprehensive, engages key stakeholders and shakes up the thinking. This often comprises a mix of 1:1 or small group interview discussions with key internal and external stakeholders, co-design sessions with community members and customers, desktop research and document review, and strategy workshops with the Board, Executive and broader team.
Strategic planning can be complex, costly and time-consuming process, but it doesn’t have to be. Our strategic refresh simplifies the strategic planning process and is perfect for organisations short on time or with limited resources. A strategic refresh typically takes about three weeks and is centred around a handful of 1:1 interview discussions and two leadership workshops.
We also have run hundreds of one day strategy facilitations, in which we come in for a full day workshop and then step away. This is often in partnership with organisations who have done the majority of the strategic thinking already or have a limited budget.
We’ve included a couple of strategic planning examples below. We really enjoyed facilitating the strategic planning process with both Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand and Surf Life Saving New South Wales, and look forward to seeing their future successes. Please click on the image below to be directed to the full strategic plans. Please note that these are an example of not-for-profit strategy.
Traditional strategic thinking is not solving today’s social and environmental challenges. We need new ideas to build new models for positive social and environment impact. Strategic planning is fundamental in developing these models so we really hope you’ve found this article useful.
If you found the information on this page helpful, you might also get some insights from our sustainable business model whitepaper, which you can download for free here.
We also have a number of blogs which are relevant to strategic planning, of which two of our recent posts are:
- Our guide to incorporating the SDGs: Moving from theory to action
- From sustainability to system reform
And a couple of other strategic planning commentaries that might be of interest are:
We love all things strategy and are keen to hear your thoughts on strategic planning. Have you used our step-by-step guide for strategy development? If so, how did you find it? Do you have an example of a great strategy? Were you involved in a brilliant or disastrous strategic planning process? What made it so great or so terrible? Do you have any other insights or questions about strategic planning?