Most strategic planning processes contain surprisingly little planning. They start with lots of meetings, data collection, and discussion of the mission, then the executive director and maybe one or two others leave with the consultants and write the actual plan.
What a waste of time and space - the sacred space - for actual discussion and decision-making, for collective visioning, for reconsidering our place in the world. We also lose the opportunity to collectively examine real, practical choices that can take the organization in different directions. Often, the results of strategic planning become 'continue what we're doing but a little better'.
Strategic Pathways Rooted in Practical Choices
One of Creative Evolution’s planning processes introduces the tool of strategic pathways. We develop a set of alternate possible pathways for the organization. Each pathway illuminates a scenario based on a question or core priority posed in the planning process, such as:
Should we center all our activities in our building, instead of all around town?
Should we be a national or a local organization?
Who do we prioritize serving?
What if we centered this particular value we keep talking about?
Could it be best for our community if we dissolved operations and used our assets a different way?
Our process then explores each pathway, beginning with a fundamental question, priority or value the organization has identified. We play this out together: "If we make this principle a true top priority, what would that change in our programming? Our staffing? Our brand? Our facility? Our finances? Our role in the community?"
Next, the committee engages in a robust discussion of the various pathways, clarifying which ones will not serve the organization and which could be combined or refined. We continue to iterate new pathways until the committee is united on the one that best represents the organization’s strategic direction. This method ensures that key decisions are made as a group, the details flow clearly from those decisions, and that bold, clear choices are fully considered.
The Strategic Status Quo
The practice of strategic planning that most nonprofits still practice today comes from the business sector, specifically from Alan Gutterman, who formalized the process in the 1950s. In his "Introduction to Strategic Planning," he lays out elements that sound very familiar to anyone who runs a non-profit today:
Plan For Change, Not Profits
Isn’t it time for many organizations to embrace a planning method that isn’t based on maximizing corporate profits? Consider instead adrienne maree brown’s emergent strategy, which has become a core tool in social justice spaces.
Emergent strategy is “plans of action, personal practices and collective organizing tools that account for constant change and rely on the strength of relationship for adaptation.” (brown 23, 1) This moves us beyond 'change management' to living in a space of ongoing adaptation to the rapidly evolving world around us.
Creative Evolutions Invests in Collective Wisdom
We believe that people need to participate in the decisions that affect them. It takes more time and effort to follow up with other important people involved with the organization. Still, without doing so, you risk their rejection of any decisions or strategies you develop. The concepts or directions a committee may choose need to be refined by those who are actually going to do the work or be affected by the work.
At this moment of deep cultural disruption, we hear more and more distrust of planning. All those plans made carefully over months in 2019 felt like a waste once Covid hit. Many organizations want to wait till things “return to normal” before embarking on complete plans. But constant and unpredictable change will continue. What kind of planning process can we account for and prepare for, and how can we lean into the shifts we can’t predict?
Shift From Plans to Living Visions
Creative Evolutions’ work leads to a “living vision” rather than a strategic plan. A living vision centers on a strong, clear intention (what Brown calls a “north star”) that can carry the organization through future unpredictable shifts.
This intention can develop from a set of practical priorities, and then can be uplifted in the mission, values, or another creative artifact that captures the heart of the organization’s desired impact. With this approach, completing a planning process is only the beginning of future iterations and that the work done in planning will support ongoing shifts and changes over many years.
This also allows building on an asset that is often discarded in strategic planning - the deepened thoughtful relationship and shared understanding of the committee. By maintaining an active dialogue around a strategy that is expected to continue to shift, the vision can remain alive and the organization can be agile and responsive in the face of new circumstances or new people joining the team.
“We are in an imagination battle.” (brown, 18)
If creative organizations want to shift the culture around them, they need new tools, tools that are based within liberatory frameworks, not reductive corporate ones. We all need new ways to imagine ourselves in different futures and in different relationships with each other and the world.
Creative Evolutions uses these principles regularly to support vision and strategy work for a variety of creative organizations. For information on how our team can work with you, or for more about this process and other ways you can approach organizational strategy, contact Creative Evolutions!
Read More: "Centering Humanity in Executive Search" by Calida Jones
brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. AK Press, 2017.
Gutterman, Alan. (2023). Introduction to Strategic Planning, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/369737695_Introduction_to_Strategic_Planning.