The Four Most Neglected Steps in Strategic Planning and What it May Cost You

By: Scott Rodin, Senior Consultant/Chief Strategy Officer

Ask any five strategic planning consultants about the best process for writing a plan, and you will get five different answers, sometimes varying widely in both product and approach. Even more vexing, ask ten nonprofits about whether they have a current, relevant strategic plan driving their daily decisions and being well executed, and you will get mostly blank stares, sighs or even laughter. 

In our experience there are few organizations benefiting daily from a well-written strategic plan that has become integrated into their life and work. 

Why is this, especially when Christian nonprofits can benefit so greatly from both the process and product of a well-written plan? It all starts with a strong foundation.

There are core elements to the development of every successful plan that simply can’t be ignored or omitted. This blog post highlights four of them. I hope you can use these elements to evaluate your own planning process and create one that will truly serve your organization in discerning God’s will for your future and pursuing it with unity and excellence. 

#1 Creating the Context for Envisioning

Much of the work we do in strategic planning is to create the right context in which a fruitful, credible and faithful vision can be discerned and articulated. While there are many steps involved, the important thing is to ensure that you have looked diligently and comprehensively at both the external and internal realities that are present now and could be in the near-term future. Some of these may include:

  • A SOAR assessment (Strengths, Opportunities, Areas for Improvement and Risks)
  • An environmental scan and analysis of significant trends
  • An understanding of your mission, vision and core values
  • An assessment of the morale and strength of your employees
  • An assessment of your board
  • A clear understanding of your financial position and the trends that affect your primary sources of income and expense

By ignoring or not giving proper time and effort in creating this context, you end up building a strategic plan that has significant blind spots. All plans are built on assumptions, and the best assumptions are developed in the context of a realistic understanding of your present state and an analysis of the internal and external influences that will impact you in the near-term future. Without this context, your plan has a high probability of becoming irrelevant as soon as these blind spots emerge, undermining the credibility of your goals and objectives. 

The point here is to agree upon all of the data you will use to create the context you need, assemble it well, assess it carefully and let it fully inform your process of envisioning the future into which God is calling you. 

#2 Understanding Driving Forces 

As we have said, all strategic plans are built on assumptions. Another term for this is driving forces. These are the primary influences you believe either will happen or will not happen in order to fully execute your plan and meet your goals.

In too many strategic planning processes, these driving forces are implied but are not clearly identified and defined. This is a critical mistake both for the veracity of your plan and the capacity to execute it. 

We believe a solid planning process includes the following exercise to build agility into your plan and mitigate risk:

  1. Write out driving forces for each goal 
  2. Understand the key indicators for each goal to help you know whether they are playing out according to your expectations or not. 

All plans have assumptions that will turn out differently than what was expected during the planning process. Good plans realize these changes early and have the capacity to make adjustments in a timely manner that keep the plan relevant. 

#3 Estimating the Capacity to Execute 

Too often in my past strategic planning work I have not given enough time or importance to the question of the organization’s capacity to execute the plan. I have come to appreciate this wise statement: “A mediocre plan well executed will serve the organization better than a brilliant plan poorly executed.” How true! 

Be sure to build in markers that help you assess the organization’s capacity to execute the final plan. This involves a more granular level of understanding the level of responsibility and the time commitments of all the people whose work is required to complete the plan on time. When the names and accompanying deadlines are pulled out and looked at separately, you will easily see pinch points. Every person whose name or title appears in the plan next to a work requirement and deadline must believe they have the resources, capacity and knowledge to complete that task on time within the context of all the other things they do. Nothing torpedos a plan more quickly than the general sense from employees that the plan is simply unrealistic.

On the positive side, nothing unites an organization more than a common agreement that a plan is in line with God’s will, that everyone in the organization understands their role and responsibility and that they have the capacity and resources to carry out their work. That must be a high priority for the outcome of any strategic planning process. 

#4 Intentional Discernment

I have left the most important core component for last. Nearly every Christian organization wants their strategic plan to align with God’s will for the future of their organization. In the end, strategic planning can be defined as discerning God’s will and articulated in a way that the organization can pursue it faithfully. If that is the case, then how much time is spent throughout your strategic planning process intentionally listening for God to speak? If this is all about God’s work, done God’s way for God’s glory, how have you integrated intentional discernment into your strategic planning process? 

I have been guilty of leading strategic planning efforts where there was a brief prayer at the beginning for God’s guidance and a brief prayer at the end for his blessing on the plan but never an intentional engagement with him throughout the entirety of the rest of the process. This is a grievous omission. 

I encourage you to work with your strategic planning team to agree on how you will seek to hear the voice of God throughout the entirety of your process, ensuring it will be led by the Holy Spirit and glorify God in its outcome. Decide on that process at the outset and hold to it. Then expect God to speak clearly and lead you into a plan that will glorify him and advance his kingdom through your mission.

My prayer is that by avoiding these four common mistakes in strategic planning you can build a plan for your organization that is faithful to God’s heart and executed in a manner that unites your employees, inspires your stakeholders and energizes your community for the greatest possible kingdom outcome. May you be blessed in that process. 

Scott Rodin for The FOCUS Group, 2021