Question Eight: How Will You Deal With the Unexpected?

Question Eight: How Will You Deal With the Unexpected?

Question Eight: How Will You Deal With the Unexpected?

John Bauer July 17, 2017 blog, News No comments
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Robert Burns, in his poem To a Mouse, said, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” Most often this is translated as “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” How often hasn’t this been true of long-range strategic plans? After all, who can honestly guarantee what is going to happen over the next few years?

Does the possibility of unexpected challenges and opportunities mean that strategic planning is a waste of time? Would it make more sense to focus on responsive strategies to emerging issues instead and on how to execute them for maximum benefit? The case for such thinking has been argued and was the subject of an article I wrote a few months ago. In fact, it is a debate which continues – unnecessarily, in my mind.

Without rehashing the points I tried to make in that article, let me tell you two stories, both dealing with the same organization at different points in time. I happened to be involved with the organization as the chairman of the board during the first event, and later I was its President and CEO during the second event.

In the early 2000’s our board decided to engage outside counsel to guide us through a strategic planning process. The organization had not undertaken such an effort previously, and it followed a fairly traditional process involving staff research into strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. It conducted focus groups around the Midwest to ascertain perceptions of mission and quality. It looked at data trends, revenue sources, and it came up with the usual assumptions about the economy, market share, employees and other variables. In short, it essentially crafted a strategic plan which projected the organization’s current status into a fairly stable future. It all looked good on paper.

But a phone call in the summer of 2004 changed everything. A similar agency on the west coast was in  trouble and asked for some assistance. Its CEO left under a cloud. Development revenue was way down. Debt load was too high. Its religious mission was being eroded. From 2004 to 2006, negotiations took place which eventually culminated in an affiliation that would ultimately result in a merger. The transfer of assets and membership took place in the summer of 2006 and overnight, the organization whose board I chaired doubled in size. Did we anticipate that opportunity when we did our strategic planning? No. And that is not surprising. Predicting such events is very difficult. But that unexpected opportunity still marked the single biggest milestone in the organization’s 105 year history, the impact of which is still being felt a decade later.

Most important for this discussion is the fact that we did not have a process in place for evaluating the opportunity from the perspective of the long-range vision and goals of the organization. We did not, for example, weigh the costs of such an acquisition against the other strategic priorities that we had set. We did not evaluate the labor issues or the impact of the merger on non-operating revenue. While it was argued at the time that the decision to merge was an ethical one (i.e., we just wouldn’t consider allowing the acquired company to go under), tools for evaluating the ultimate impact were not utilized. I’m not sure the outcome would have been different, but we certainly would have been better prepared for the longer-term challenges the merger brought about.

The second event occurred in 2008 and I have written about it before. Once the above-mentioned merger was imminent, I was asked to come to work at my agency as the merger integration project manager. In other words, I was to bring the two companies together into a cohesive whole. In the process, I was to facilitate a new strategic planning process which would lay out the preferred future for this new merged organization. Ten years ago I was already utilizing the approach that I have been advocating in steps one through seven of this planning process. In my opinion, we did everything right as far as articulating a coherent future for our organization. The board of directors ratified the new strategic plan at its February 2008 board meeting, the same meeting at which I was named to be the next CEO. The strategic plan was a work of art, a thing of beauty – at least as far as strategic plans went, and at least in my humble opinion.

And then August came and the financial markets started to tank. Within four months we had lost 35% of the value of our endowment. States were already beginning to either hold or reduce Medicaid reimbursements. Our country was in a full-blown recession. And my beautiful strategic plan went up in smoke. All its assumptions were voided. All the goals and objectives around growth crashed into a heap. We were in survival mode and the new reality we had to face had very little to do with that preferred future we had so eloquently described in our strategic plan. The next six months were spent identifying and implementing survival strategies. Restructuring and right-sizing management was implemented and we ceased operations in areas where funding could not meet expenses. We put on hold plans to develop our campus and expand various programs. In short, we abandoned our lofty aspirations and hunkered down to weather the financial storm.

I tell these two stories to reinforce the truism that things happen that are beyond our control. A strategic plan, by its very nature, is a tool to control people, places and things in order to achieve a desired state of existence at some point in the future. Not everything can be controlled. Therefore, it seems prudent to consider ways to mitigate the risk to the organization without abandoning the overall strategic vision described in a strategic plan. In other words, how can decisions be made to deal with either catastrophe on the one hand or windfall opportunity on the other?

There are two ways to approach this question. The first is to have in place a rigorous process for managing and mitigating risk. That will be the subject of another article. The second is to develop decision-making criteria for addressing such unexpected events WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF THE STRATEGIC PLAN! If you have followed the first seven steps, you will have a detailed picture of your preferred future. The plan is high-level. It is visionary. It also has measurable goals and it is annually reviewable. It also is the vehicle through which annual initiatives can be developed. But most important, it articulates a set of beliefs and values about the future which can be translated into decision-making criteria. Such a process has been developed by David LaPiana and was described in greater detail in the afore-mentioned article. Developing four or five such criteria affords the organization a rational basis for evaluating events and making judgments about possible responses that are in alignment with overarching strategic goals.

Let me illustrate with an example. Let’s say that the organization decides that the following criteria are of greatest importance when it comes to building responsive strategies:

  • the strategy must support or advance the mission,
  • the strategy must contribute to competitive advantage,
  • the strategy must enhance the bottom line financially,
  • and the strategy must improve the organization’s image with respect to quality of service.

Hindsight, of course, is always 20/20, but let’s apply these criteria to both of the events I described earlier. Would we have proceeded with the merger had we employed this screening device? The affiliation certainly allowed us to advance our mission. Giving us a national scale of operations afforded us a competitive advantage over smaller, more regional organizations. The affiliation certainly gained attention from funders and trade associations. And because we built into the merger integration process commitments to a philosophy of quality service delivery, the merger definitely helped us enhance our image for providing exceptional service.

But did we fully understand the implications of the decision for the larger goals of the organization? The impact on the organization’s finances was something else. Hoped-for expansion of the donor data-base did not materialize. Fund-raising could not keep up with a growing loss from operations. Promises to bring wages and benefits into alignment with the parent company only increased the cash-flow problem. I won’t say that the criterion related to financial impact would have been a deal-killer, but I do think it may have conditioned our negotiations in a way that would have lessened the negative impact. All-in-all, I believe the merger was the right thing to happen, but having such a screening mechanism in place would have influenced how we structured the deal.

And then there was the recession. Protecting the mission in the face of calamitous financial times was paramount and we worked hard to not compromise the quality of the services we provided. In fact, we were adamant that no strategy would negatively affect direct support. Strategies we did employ, therefore, we aimed a “right-sizing” to make sure that nothing interfered with mission and quality. Even when we had to announce closure of programs in a state which just would not reimburse at a break-even rate, messaging to the media was based on our uncompromising commitment to quality.  So, even though we didn’t have a realistic strategic plan, we did develop, out of necessity, a set of decision guides that allowed us to remain true to who we were and to respond to the deepening financial crisis quickly and effectively.

The fear of having to face unanticipated challenges and opportunities and not having rational tools to aid decision-making is the most pressing concern of most CEOs I have the opportunity to work with. In fact, they tell me often that they can’t wait to get through the larger tasks of strategic planning so they can develop screening criteria to deal with such events. But I tell them, as I am telling you now, that building the overall strategic framework FIRST is the necessary prerequisite to creating screening criteria. Making decisions in the face of the unexpected twists and turns of life requires a meta-vision, an overarching direction, a high-level position toward which the organization is moving. The strategic plan is the vehicle for articulating that vision. Strategy screens are the tools for making immediate decisions about unanticipated events within the context of the overall plan.

Here’s an image that may help you visualize what I’ve been talking about. Think of the strategic plan as driving on an eight-lane freeway. You have calculated the ending point, how long it should take, and what your destination looks like. Annual iterations of the rolling strategic plan may suggest decisions such as taking a different route to save time or stopping for gas or coffee.  Strategy decisions which are required to deal with unanticipated events can be thought of as being similar to making a lane change, deciding to speed up or slow down, or pulling over to fix a flat tire. You can see the relationship of each level of decision-making to the others.

When I have finished writing this ten-part series, I am going to share a schematic which visually depicts this ten-step process. You’ll want to stay tuned!

I am also planning to turn this model into a five-part video course which you and your board can use to work through a coherent approach to strategic planning.

In the meantime, your reactions and comments are always welcomed.

Question Seven: How Will You Know If You Get There?

John Bauer July 10, 2017 blog, News 1 comment
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You have described your preferred future and you have broken down your dream into high level strategic goals. You have determined that you have the capacity to achieve your goals and you are ready to develop tactical objectives to move your organization into action. But how will you know if you actually get to your preferred future position?

Let’s say, for example, that you have decided that within five years you will become the “employer of choice” for your industry in your area. You have further defined what that means by stating that you will have the lowest employee turnover rate, the highest employee satisfaction scores, and the best wage and benefit packages among all your competitors. Before you start drafting tactical plans to accomplish these goals, it is necessary to quantify performance so you can set concrete targets and also monitor progress. In this obvious example, two things are required. First, you need to identify metrics that are commonly used in your field so you can compare yourself with others. Second, you have to set target goals and develop monitoring and reporting systems to track your performance over time and your progress toward actually achieving those goals. Every time you develop a new tactic or strategy to “bend the curve” or “move the needle” so to speak, you should be able to measure its impact on attaining the goal in question.

Take another example from higher education. You have decided that you are going to be the highest rated regional private college in your geographic region. To determine what that would look like, you have decided that you will use the U.S. News and World Report rankings of colleges and universities. These rankings are determined from a dozen different indicators including things like entering Freshman ACT scores, alumni giving, number of students graduating in four years, student to faculty ratios, and numerous others. You can craft a strategic goal statement with an associated metric which establishes a concrete target for any or all of those indicators. Initiatives or tactical plans can be measured for their effectiveness by monitoring the impact such actions have on the performance indicator. If you are successful at improving these metrics through careful planning and execution of strategies, there should be no reason why your institution can’t rise to the top of the charts.

Now, I should pause here to say that what I am suggesting is considerably different than routine measurement of efficiency. You should see, for example, that measures of efficiency (e.g., faculty/student ratios) might run counter to a strategic goal. It saves money to increase faculty/student ratios but improved quality and higher learning outcomes might be enhanced by lowering the ratio. While there are certainly other factors that contribute to learning, it has been generally accepted that smaller teacher/student ratios improve learning. Hence, U.S. News and World Report’s years-long use of this metric. This distinction is very important as boards may question certain resource allocations, especially when they are aimed at improving quality indicators that may be difficult to measure.

While setting quantified target goals is important, let me also emphasize how essential it is to have systems in place to monitor on-going progress. Such systems are different than the routine monitoring of key performance indicators such as net budget variance and other descriptive statistics like people served, number of employees, etc. Business intelligence requires another level of observation and analysis. It requires tracking performance over time along with the capacity to project possible statistical scenarios into the future. This sounds complicated, but it is really quite simple. Take one of the statistics I mentioned above such as the rate of employee turnover. Looking back over 20 or 30 quarters to get a clear picture of past performance will give you an idea of the ups and downs of the rate over time. Identifying events or environmental conditions such as the recession beginning in the third quarter of 2008 will help you to flag events which directly influenced your organization’s performance. Your environment scan in which you did your best to identify trends for the future, as well as your current status, should give you a sense of the kinds of events that might affect your ability to achieve your goals. Furthermore, the thorough capacity assessment you conducted will give you a good sense of the extent to which you can “bend the curve.”

So, considering where you would like the organization to be in three to five years, it is possible to map several possible scenarios that meet or exceed that goal. As data gets updated each quarter, it is possible to refine the path to success by evaluating those actions, conditions, or strategies that have an impact on performance, and to enhance, alter, or cease those actions as needed.

It is also possible to contemplate conditions or possible events that might lead you to fall short of your goal. While not a desired scenario, recognizing the factors that might bring it about is helpful in developing strategies to avoid failure. Such possibilities should be part of an overall risk management system and is a subject for another time. Predicting performance based on past performance, understanding current realities and future trends, and tracking real-time data to identify trends allows you to be nimble and responsive to changes in your environment.

But then, that’s the subject of next week’s article, “How will you address challenges and opportunities along the way?” Stay tuned.

As always, your thoughts and reactions are most welcome.

Question Six: Can You Get There?

John Bauer July 3, 2017 blog, News No comments
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This question addresses an often-neglected aspect of thorough strategic planning. Having described your preferred future, it would seem to make a lot of sense to determine if your organization has the capacity to actually achieve that future. In other words, does your organization have the necessary resources, processes, policies, and infrastructure to effectuate the plan and arrive at the desired position? And along the way, can your organization adapt and respond to emerging challenges and opportunities, both of which also require organizational capacity?

A capacity assessment is different than a traditional SWOT analysis, although it could possibly be used here with some effectiveness. In most traditional strategic planning processes, SWOT analysis is conducted at the outset, with the unfortunate result that the desired future position is shaped by an understanding of weaknesses and threats, instead of a thoughtful regard for opportunities in an anticipated future. Furthermore, because every organization has capacity in varying degrees in different areas, pigeon-holing elements of capacity into the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, or threats boxes creates false dichotomies and renders absolute judgments without recognizing gradations in strength.

Regardless of the method employed (and I will share a number of such methods below), it is important that every aspect of the organization be considered. Allison (pp. 158-163) lists “eight areas of operations [that] are most relevant for strategic planning: (1) human resources, (2) organizational structure and culture, (3) financial management, (4) resource and business development, (5) external communications, (6) information technology, (7) facilities and equipment, and (8) planning and evaluation.”

Thigpen (2007) in her work at the Center for Nonprofit Leadership at Adelphi University expanded the list and created questionnaires for each of the following: mission, board governance, planning, resource development, external relations, administration and management, executive leadership, finance, human resources, program planning and evaluation, and space, facilities and technology. Individual questionnaires were created for each area along with suggested interviewees to ensure valid and knowledgeable input.

Using most of these same categories, the Marguerite Casey Foundation developed an assessment tool that groups 59 questions into four broad categories of capacity:  leadership capacity, adaptive capacity, management capacity, and operational capacity. Their questionnaire requires participants to select one of four narrative descriptors for each item, thereby ranking capacity in levels 1, 2, 3 or 4.

Levinger and Bloom developed an easy-to-use tool called the Simple Capacity Assessment Tool (SCAT) which engages staff and other stakeholders in rating criteria as “nascent,” “emerging,” “expanding,” or “mature.” Their seven areas of assessment are: governance, management practices, human resources, financial resources, service delivery, external relations, and partnering. One interesting aspect of this tool is that stakeholders are involved in developing additional criteria under each subcategory, thereby customizing the tool to consider the unique aspects of the organization.

One of the most widely used on-line assessment tools comes from the McKinsey Foundation. The Organizational Capacity Assessment Tool (OCAT) evaluates nine areas using 123 questions. Similar in construction to the Marguerite Casey Foundation questionnaire, four descriptors are provided for each item.

  • Aspirations
  • Strategy
  • Leadership, staff and volunteers
  • Funding
  • Values
  • Learning and innovation
  • Marketing and communication
  • Managing processes
  • Organization, infrastructure and technology
  • Advocacy (optional)

Several advantages present themselves by using the OCAT. Responses are tabulated automatically and the results are published in the form of a comprehensive report. Not only is capacity measured in a rating scale, but an indication of consensus is provided to indicate the extent to which participants were close or disparate in their responses. Those areas which were high or low in capacity are also color coded. The report provides recommendations for “low hanging fruit” and areas of strength upon which to build. Agendas and templates for planning committee meetings are provided. Graphic images depicting the status of the organization in the various areas are helpful for achieving shared understanding of the overall capacity. Finally, the option for a tenth criterion, advocacy, is provided for those nonprofits that have a budget and staff for that function.

Last, numerous state nonprofit associations have developed capacity assessment tools for member organizations. I noted interesting approaches from New Hampshire, Oregon and Michigan, but I did not take the time to examine all fifty states. Some of these tools are free and accessible on-line. Others are available to members only. It would certainly be worthwhile to investigate which resources are available in your state.

Regardless of how the capacity assessment is conducted, the results need to be carefully reviewed with an eye toward answering the critical question, “Can we get there?” Your dreams for a preferred future will turn into disillusion and disappointment if you don’t attend to your organization’s limitations. My preferred future of being able to dunk a basketball, for example, has to take into consideration my 67 year old knees. My brain may say “jump” but my body is just not going to do what I wish it could. If you lack the capacity to execute the tactical action plans needed to realize the future position you aspire to, attention must be given to building up those areas before you can reasonably hope to move forward. Conducting a thorough capacity assessment is an important step to being able to realize that future. The results of such an assessment may even cause you to rethink some of the positions you aspire to, recognizing the difference between the possible and the plausible, as I discussed in last week’s article.

Next week, I’m going to talk about the importance of measuring performance as you answer the question: “How will you know if you get there?”

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.



Allison, M. and Kaye, J. Strategic Planning for Nonprofit Organizations. (2015). John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken, NJ.

Levinger, B. and Bloom, E. A Simple Capacity Assessment Tool (SCAT). Developed for the Global Development Research Center, can be found at:

_____ Organizational Capacity Assessment Tool. Developed by the Marguerite Casey Foundation for use by nonprofit organizations, is found at:

_____ Organizational Capacity Assessment Tool (OCAT). Developed by the McKinsey Foundation for use as an online tool, complete with analysis and reporting, found at:

_____ Self-Assessment Tool for Nonprofit Organizations. Developed by the Oregon Association of Nonprofit Organizations. The tool and its assessment grid are found at:

Thigpen, A. Organizational Assessment. (2007) Developed for the Center for Nonprofit Leadership at Adelphi University, School of Social Work. The tool is available at:


Question Five: What is Your Preferred Future?

John Bauer June 26, 2017 blog, News No comments
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If you think you have a pretty good handle on what the future environment will look like, or at least you are knowledgeable about the trends that will affect your organization going forward, and you have a solid and honest assessment of how well you are operating in your current environment, then you are ready to define your future. Before suggesting how you can frame that future in words, however, I want to pause and reflect a bit on the expression I use a lot in my practice, and frankly, what I believe is the only appropriate outcome of strategic planning: a description of your “preferred future.”

The truth is, there are many futures one can choose from. There is a large set of possible futures, limited only by your vision and capacity to achieve them. If you analyze the world you operate in and are attuned to changes that are happening and are likely to happen in the future, you might come up with a few plausible futures that are within the realm of possibility given your organization’s recognized strengths and constraints. There is also a probable future if you continue to operate with minimal changes in mission or program. Understanding what that probable future looks like can serve as a baseline from which to measure risk or change. Choosing from among the large set of possible futures, however, leaders who are determined to position their organizations for maximum impact and sustainability in the future must describe the preferred future they can commit to striving for. The illustration below describes how these possible futures are related. I’d like to share a few observations on each of these so you can gain a better sense of what I am encouraging you to do. There is also an inherent flaw in the model itself which I will expose and discuss at the conclusion of the article.

Possible Future

So, what’s possible? Just about anything, I suppose. For example, if you receive an unexpected ten million dollar legacy gift, or Democrats come into power again and triple federal spending on Medicare and Medicaid, you can dream pretty big dreams. It’s possible that advances in technology will eliminate the need for direct care staff, that all your surrounding competition will turn their assets over to you, and that the state in which you operate will ask you to take over all state-run agencies of your type. The key consideration is what is in your control to change. You can’t predict when people will die and leave you millions and the political future is less predictable than the weather. And far-fetched fantasies, while tantalizing, need to fly on their own and not crash into the corn field of reality.

Trying to describe various possible futures consists of a 30,000 foot view of what the organization could look like, realizing that as one gets closer to the ground with all its detail and variation, many if not most of those possible futures are not realistic.

Plausible Future

So Uncle Fred isn’t going to leave your organization the farm, the Republicans will control the federal government for the next eight years, you’ll still need a significant entry-level workforce, and the competition will still wrestle with you for market share. Given the internal and external conditions in which you operate, what reasonable predictions can be made about the future and how will your organization fit into it? From the days when I taught logic, I emphasized that a good informal argument should pass the tests of coherence and correspondence. Achieving plausibility is similar. A plausible future is one which must be internally coherent and consistent with current and projected realities and must correspond with how the majority of others in your industry view the future. In other words, a plausible vision of the future has to make sense, given everything else which is known.

Probable Future

Probability is a mathematical concept which determines the likelihood of an occurrence. If you flip a coin into the air, the odds of it turning up heads is one out of two possibilities. To be sure, it is possible that you could throw five heads in a row, but we know that the more instances of flipping a coin there are, the closer to that 50% mark we come. In the world of organizational planning, we can also surmise the future based on daily, weekly, monthly and annual instances from the past, usually described quantitatively in terms of key performance indicators, benchmarks, financial performance, quality measures and whatever other ways exist to track your organization’s behavior over time. Visually, one can draw such performance in the form of a graph which indicates behavior and change over time. Extrapolating those graphs into the future, including rate of change, arc and trajectory, one can ascertain a probable state of existence at a future point in time. This, of course, assumes that existing internal and external conditions remain pretty much the same – a very dangerous assumption which I will discuss below.

So, thinking about your organization as it is today, factoring in what you know about the environment and how it is changing, you can project a vision of the future derived from where all those performance lines lead, assuming you continue to do what you have always done with the same people in the same manner in the same location using the same methods. Well, who wants to do that? If your strategic plan is to do the same old same old, then I’d suggest that you don’t even bother with the effort. Just draw the lines five years into the future and be done with it.

But of course, that isn’t why your board pays you the big bucks, is it? While it may be a useful exercise to contemplate what your organization would look like if you did nothing, or to calculate what it would take to “bend the curve” of your performance measures, merely creating a future based on current trend lines seems like an abrogation of responsibility to me.

Wild Cards

Of course, the future is not perfectly predictable. If it was, I would not be writing this; I’d be enjoying the beaches of Maui, living on my shrewd investments in the stock market. In my own professional life, I was the architect of a brilliantly conceived strategic plan for my organization that rigorously analyzed everything I’ve talked about here. This beautifully constructed vision for the future of my agency was enthusiastically adopted by my board in February of 2008. The following September it went into the ash heap of history as a useless stack of paper. The wild card we were dealt was called a financial recession and it dramatically reshaped our future as we worked to survive. While unpredictable, possible wild card events should be considered and risk mitigation strategies developed. Decision-making tools to handle unanticipated events should be established. Unfortunately, we had planned on the basis of static assumptions and were not prepared for the big recession wild card. The chart indicates their possibility, not their probability. Acknowledge them, but work to avoid them.

Preferred Future

And so we come to the decision point. Given everything you know about what is possible, plausible and probable, what do you prefer to have your future look like? This is a complex question, but one which can be answered in its constituent parts. If you return to the seven planning variables I described in my two previous articles, it is possible to describe a preferred position in each of those areas. Taken together, they comprise the organization’s vision for the future.

Your preferred future should be written in the form of high level general statements of position. I prefer this terminology to “goals” or “objectives” or “initiatives,” which have their own technical meanings and imply associated measurable targets and timelines. These types of statement will follow later as the leadership team develops annual tactical and action plans. For purposes of the strategic plan, however, boards should only focus on the high level strategic positions and not be allowed to get into the weeds around tactical issues.

Allow me to give a few examples of what such high-level position statements might look like for each respective planning element. I don’t hold them up as perfectly constructed models; only as examples to give you the general flavor.

Technology – In five years, the organization will be regionally recognized as the frontline innovator in the use of adaptive and educational technology to support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Population/Demand – The organization will provide a comprehensive continuum of care to seniors beginning with early retirement and continuing to end of life with a dominant desire to meet their needs at every phase of life in their own homes.

Competitive Market – The organization will be the exemplar of excellence in its region and will strive to expand its mission of quality through affiliation, collaboration or merger with identified competitors in the region.

Regulatory Environment– The organization will aggressively advocate at every level of government to ensure the highest level of funding, client civil rights, and legal protection for the people it supports.

Financial Position – The organization will ensure its long-term sustainability by maximizing its operating revenues through advocacy efforts and by building an endowment through aggressive fund raising from individual, corporate and foundation donors which will be of sufficient size to offset all corporate overhead expense from its earnings.

Work Force – The organization will be recognized in its region as the employer of choice, characterized by high employee satisfaction, lower than average turnover, and opportunities for all employees to grow and advance personally and professionally.

Location – The organization will expand its geographic service area from broadly regional to selectively national in scope, targeting those states and population centers which demonstrate sufficient unmet need for services, a favorable regulatory and funding environment, and adequate denominational representation to provide spiritual support.

If thoughtfully constructed and clearly reflective of solid research in each area, I think you can see how powerful such statements are for boards and leadership teams as they exercise their strategic responsibilities. Any one of these statements could yield hours of generative discussion in a board meeting. Such position statements, taken together, should paint a clear picture of what the chosen future will look like.

These statements should also be descriptive enough to then be broken down into tactical goals and objectives, complete with measurable indicators of progress. As stated before, however, tactical statements should NOT be under the purview of boards or board committees. They can be reviewed as annual initiatives or goals, but a board’s responsibility is to approve the long-range strategic direction of the organization and not to tell management how to execute the plan.

To return to the earlier concern about unanticipated “wild card” events that have the potential to dramatically alter the future, I will write in more detail in subsequent articles about how to manage such events within the framework of the long-range strategic plan. However, it is important to state that once a  strategic plan is adopted, it should NEVER be allowed to languish on the CEOs bookshelf. It MUST become a living document, subject to review and revision whenever changes in the internal and external environments warrant. While I’ll expand on this more at a future date, let me suggest some simple ways to immediately create a culture around the strategic plan.

Probably the biggest step toward ongoing review and accountability is to make the strategic plan THE agenda for board meetings. Devote most of board meeting time to discussing progress toward achieving those position statements. Report on key performance indicators which show progress toward the end goals. Use the position statements for generative discussions, bringing in key staff to provide background information and to report on initiatives aimed an advancing the organization toward the preferred position. You might think about publishing management briefs between board meetings so the board meeting doesn’t digress into listening to reports. You can actually dump most board decisions or approvals into a consent agenda that would require no discussion unless someone moved to take an item off the consent agenda. In other words, embed the strategic plan into governance practice.

The second biggest step toward ongoing review and accountability is to make the review and updating of the strategic plan an annual event, scheduled for a vote by the board at the same time every year. In other words, I recommend having a rolling one-year strategic plan with a three to five year horizon. Each year, the plan is updated and another year is added to the horizon. If this is done thoroughly each year, it is conceivable that a comprehensive six to twelve month comprehensive strategic planning process would never be needed again.

Finally, to deal with those unanticipated wild card events, tools need to be developed which allow the organization’s board and management to make crisis decisions in a manner which stays true to the strategic direction of the organization. I’ll talk more about how that can be accomplished in three weeks.

As always, your thoughts and reactions are welcome.