Transformational strategy: what is it and how to develop one?

Along with pivot and “unprecedented”, “transformation” has emerged as a buzzword among for-purpose and business leaders in recent years. Over the last ten years, and especially the last two, we’ve been thinking deeply about what really makes a transformational strategy at Spark. We’ve also been thinking and refining our processes and questions to develop transformational strategies. This blog is based on the insights we’ve gleaned and the lessons we’ve taken on board when it comes to transformation. It’s a resource for leaders who are looking to transform their organisations, sectors and communities for the better.

What is a transformational strategy?
When defining a term, it can sometimes be helpful to start with what it’s not. In our experience, many strategies are often the same as the previous version plus (and sometimes minus!) 10%. These strategies contain tweaks and edits when compared with their predecessors but the guts of the content is the same. In these scenarios, incremental change is often packaged up as transformational change.

To put it another way, a transformational strategy significantly changes an organisation’s direction, performance or impact. It does this by substantially altering why an organisation exists, what it will focus on or how the entity operates.

Developing a transformational strategy

A handful of key tactics that we’ve found useful to develop transformational strategies include:

• Clarify expectations
If transformation is your aim, make that explicit up front. This is about clearly defining the objectives you seek and the rationale explaining why transformational change is required.

• Put ideas first
Many strategic planning processes start with listing and considering challenges, risks and threats. This can constrain creative thinking and get people into ‘black hat’ mode, whereby they focus on the negatives. Instead, encourage a focus on ideas and opportunities, putting constraints and challenges to the side (at least temporarily).

• Set the scene
While some people will enthusiastically lean into thinking creatively and differently, not everyone will be open to change and new ideas. Therefore, it’s essential to effectively frame the conversation. A simple way to action this is to encourage people to stay open-minded and park their inner critic for certain discussions, and revisit concerns and questions down the track.

• Engage widely
If you’re talking with the usual suspects, it’s likely your strategy will land in a suspiciously similar place. Ask yourself who else to bring into the process to shake up the thinking. This engagement could be through workshops, one-on-one conversations, focus groups, surveys or other means.

• Don’t start from scratch
Transformation doesn’t necessarily equate to originality. You can look internally and externally for inspiration. Consider other organisations around the world, peers and leaders in your own sector, as well as adjacent areas. It’s unlikely you’ll find a single, perfect solution but you may find useful components or a starting point that you can build on.

Specific topics and questions to consider

There are a number of areas that for-purpose leaders can unpack to create transformational strategies, noting that it is rare for all of these areas to be up for discussion. As such, you may want to think of the below as levers for change, and then think about which one you’d like to pull to drive transformation and impact.

• Impact and vision
Most of our clients maintain largely the same vision or impact areas over time (e.g. achieving gender equality, building healthy communities, ending homelessness etc.) However, if this changes markedly it will represent a major shift in organisational direction. For example, if you were a philanthropic foundation with a focus on medical research and you shifted to funding climate change solutions, this would represent a transformational move for your organisation, stakeholders and community.

Key questions to consider here include:
o What problems have we existed to solve? For whom?
o What problems could and should we exist to solve into the future? For whom?
o What are the key unmet needs of our communities? What are the key gaps in our sector?
o What impact do we want to achieve over the coming years?

• Purpose and role
If you decide to keep the same vision and/or impact areas, a transformational strategy could be about a significant change in your purpose or role. A great example here is our work with a disability organisation who used to be a service provider and subsequently transformed to become a funder. The NDIS rollout and their commitment to high quality services in combination with selling off a major asset enabled them to start funding a one-time competitor.

Key questions to consider here include:
o What are our strengths as an organisation? How can we leverage them to change or bolster our role?
o What role are we uniquely placed to play?
o Over the coming years, how will we split our time and resources between direct service provision, coalitions and capability building, and systemic change? The diagram below can be a useful framework to guide this discussion, which we refer to as the altitude of play model.


A group of people holding a workshop.


• Geography
Thinking transformationally about your geographic remit is either about expansion, downsizing or a targeted focus. While the conversations are rarely straightforward, we’ve found these three questions to be the key:
o Are you seeking to increase the region(s) you work in?
o Are you seeking to scale back the region(s) you work in?
o Are you seeking to have a targeted focus on certain communities or geographies, for example based on equity?

• Cohort
This is a critical area for for-purpose organisations to consider and agree on. A transformational example here is a homelessness organisation who were working with children and young people but, over time, identified older women as a key population group at risk of homelessness. In light of this, they decided to shift a significant part of their efforts and resources to support older women.

Key questions to consider here include:
o Who has the greatest need for our services at the moment?
o  Are there “emerging” groups who are likely to be our priority in the future? How could we support them now?

• Priorities or goals or pillars or objectives
We’re referring here to the 3-5 key building blocks that act as the key strategic focus areas. (Everyone has their own preferred language for this part of a strategic plan so use whatever you prefer.) As these focus areas generally act as the skeleton for detail such as initiatives and indicators, it’s a critical part to get right and presents a ripe opportunity for transformation. For example, introducing or emphasising concepts like partnerships and digital can act as a real game-changer.

Key questions to consider here include:
o What are we going to focus on for the coming years?
o At a high level, what do we need to do differently over the years ahead?
o If we prioritise X, could this be a game-changer for our organisation?

• Initiatives or projects or strategic actions
Again, use the language that works for you, keeping in mind that this is about the components that make up your strategic roadmap. For many of our clients, their fundamental vision, purpose and priorities may stay the same (or similar) over time but there can be significant change at the roadmap level by applying a defend and extend lens. An example would be a strategic initiative around M&A due diligence, which would generally not be explicitly listed on a strategy on a page. Depending how this proceeds, it could result in transformational organisational change.

Key questions to consider here include:
o What initiatives are we going to continue with (defend) and what new or innovative projects will we introduce (extend)?
o If we action X project or initiative, could this be a game-changer for our organisation?

• Values and ways of working
If you’re not transforming the why or the what, it might be how you work. This could be about seriously embedding diversity and inclusion into how you work, building a culture of entrepreneurship and experimentation, or encouraging vulnerability and authenticity. Real change here can drive transformation across organisations and communities.

Key questions to consider here include:
o What will make our team unique over the years ahead?
o What will unite our team over the coming years?
o What will bring the best out of our team into the future?
o What beliefs, attitudes and attributes will our people need to embody today and tomorrow?

Next steps
If you’re considering transformation, we really hope you’ve found this blog useful and if you’re on a transformation journey, we wish you the best of luck! If you’d like to continue reading, you can access our free DIY guide to strategic planning here. We’re also very happy to continue the conversation by phone, email or over coffee – get in touch here.


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