Strategy implementation in times of change
24 April 2023 6 minute read
This is the fourth blog in a series on updating your charity strategy. You may also be interested in previous blogs on how strategy is changing, the role of values in decision making and prioritisation.
In an era of unending crisis, strategy becomes a process of ongoing decision-making. In such a context, you need to know where you want to go, however, your exact route to get there may not be mapped out in detail at the outset. This is often called an ‘adaptive’ or ‘agile’ approach to strategy, others talk about “being more flexible”, “a test and learn approach”, or needing to be “more nimble”. Whilst different organisations describe this approach with different language, the overall concept is steadily becoming the norm in sector.
Once you have your strategic framework agreed, what does implementation of adaptive strategy look like? We’ve been talking, in confidence, to a range of social and environmental charities. Below is a selection of what we’ve heard.
Adapting annual planning
As a part of adaptive strategy approaches, charities continue to aim for longer-term impact, however, the detailed planning on how to get there is much shorter term. One leader said: “Going forward we expect to be swimming in those two lanes, long term, and short term.” Another leader reflected: “In terms of adaptive strategies, it’s just about having enough of a plan down to be able to see the effects of changes and evaluate whether to absorb that into our effort and if so how, what gives or how extra resources are found. To know where you’re starting from.”
If you’re implementing your strategy iteratively, your annual planning cycle takes on greater importance than ever before, becoming a process less about assessment of progress against your plan and more a process of reflection and refreshing your direction of travel. Your strategic framework – your vision, mission, values, goals and enablers – remains your guiding star throughout the strategic period and annual planning is about asking the following questions:
- How effectively did we deliver our strategic framework in the last year and what could we do better next year?
- What is our current understanding of the external environment and what do we need to adjust / pivot our strategy implementation accordingly?
- How can we make the greatest impact in the next year?
Annual planning, at its best, is a combination of yearly pause for reflection to refresh plans, underpinned by ongoing monitoring and insight gathering throughout the year. Most organisations are focusing on detailed planning for the year ahead, with indicative plans for the subsequent two years to ensure the year ahead is placed within a longer term understanding of how it contributes over time to the strategic framework.
Adapting insight gathering
One of the most fundamental changes under a more adaptive strategy approach is how insight is gathered and used. Charities are moving away from traditional strategy processes – characterised by a massive insight gathering process once every three, five or ten years – towards more regular monitoring of insight. As always, it remains essential to have clarity on what data should be gathered to support decision making, without it becoming an industry of collecting data that is hardly used. A measurement framework based on a robust theory of change allows for robust data capture.
It is critical that data is turned into insight. There’s little point in knowing facts and figures about your delivery if there’s no insight into what it means for your strategy, to inform evidence-based decision making. Agreeing who is responsible for the analysis and interpretation of datais essential. Successful insight generation requires diverse perspectives from different levels within your organisation, alongside the views of external stakeholders and the people that you support. Building a consistent, clear, and proportionate process for insight generation is central to effective strategy implementation.
Many organisations find that adapting insight gathering encourages changes to the practice and culture of multiple teams. One common change is an increasing role for frontline teams, delivering services and programmes, to feed insight upwards. Often this requires quite a culture shift to empower teams, often accustomed to being ‘told’ how to implement the strategy, to feel confident enough to share insight into decision-making processes. It’s often those on the front line who are the first to see changes in the external environment and their perspective is therefore immensely valuable. The second common change is an increased role for the people supported by the organisation to provide their experience and insights. To enable this, many organisations de-jargon their strategy language to improve inclusivity and clarity, for example, Mencap has a ‘big plan’ rather than a ‘strategy’.
Adapting understanding of a charities place in the system
As the focus on understanding the external environment grows, organisations are increasingly contemplating their place in a wider ecosystem. Many have open conversations with other charities, funders, or stakeholders during strategy development about potential collaboration. This can be new partners, or part of ongoing conversations with existing close stakeholders. One leader said ‘As the maturity of the organisation is greater, [we recognise] mission is more than your own organisation. We shouldn’t think that the only things that are good come from us’. There appears to be a growing desire to collaborate, from partnership to shared advocacy, from volunteer passports to systems mapping, however, competition for resources remains. Charities also have tough choices to make about prioritisation, as one leader said: “the trick is to understand what, out of this massive environment, is relevant to this charity, but that is easier said than done…”
Traditional power dynamics within organisations can metamorphosis, as a more adaptive strategy approach is implemented. This has ramifications for good governance and leadership at the senior team and board levels, as well as reporting to funders.
To be more flexible and responsive, charities need more flexibility in their funding. One leader spoke of “trying to weaken the annual budgeting cycle, so you don’t have to wait to secure funding to act”. Many charities are exploring a separate unrestricted fund within their budget to facilitate in-year changes of direction or new action. Others spoke of the challenges of traditional, restricted grant funding holding them back and distracting them from impact. One leader went so far as to question why they needed to employ “a team that just reports back to funders” when resources could be focused instead on creating impact for the cause.
As more and more charities implement adaptive strategies, many are debating questions like ‘how do we provide strategic clarity for our teams without dictating direction?’ and ‘how will the board know that the organisation is on track for successful strategic implementation?’ Whilst trustees will continue to have legal and moral responsibilities in steering their organisation’s fiscal competence, legal compliance and impact, many are starting to reflect – perhaps privately at this stage – that, as one leader succinctly put it “trustees will need to get comfortable with more uncertainty than they are used to.”
How can NPC help?
NPC can support charities and funders in refreshing their vision, mission, and values as a part of our strategy support. For further information please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
We invite you to join our ‘leading with an adaptive strategy’ event on 16 May 2023, the next in our Leading Impact seminar series. We also convene a regular Strategy Peer Network for people leading strategy to share learning together – we would love to see you there.
Prioritising: why it’s important and how to get started
By Sally Bagwell .
On 20 March 2023.
This is the third blog in a series on updating your charity strategy.
Using values to guide decision making
By Liz Gadd .
On 18 January 2023.
In an ever-changing context, knowing your values can help you make better decisions.