I was on maternity leave when Covid hit. When I returned ten months into the pandemic, the change in how the social sector planned for the future had been rapid and radical. Since then, we’ve had months of political turmoil, a cost-of-living crisis which gets worse every day, and an environmental crisis we which can no longer ignore.
Previously, setting a fixed 5-year strategy seemed like a useful guide to action in a complicated and changing world—even if it began to date towards the end. As the pace of change speeds up, the need to anchor our work to clear, shared objectives—but with the ability to meet evolving circumstances—grows ever greater.
Through our work with clients in the past few years, we’ve been updating our thinking on what good strategy looks like in these frenetic times—something flexible enough to respond to circumstances without getting pulled off-course.
Keeping your strategy relevant as the world changes
As time goes on, the needs you are responding to look different and the opportunities and tools at your disposal evolve. We’re all familiar with that frustrating feeling of fudging the links between the work which seems most important and the ageing strategy you’re reporting against.
The pandemic brought ideas about ‘agile’ or ‘adaptive’ strategy into the mainstream, but even in more stable times, a strategy with a mechanism for adaptation will be more realistic and less frustrating to work with. The starting point is to be outcomes driven rather than activity driven.
I find it useful to think about developing a ‘strategic framework’ rather than a ‘strategy’. The distinction is that a ‘strategic framework’ aims to be a ‘north star’ to guide the direction of the organisation. It lays out the programmes of work which will be delivered through the life of the strategy, but it gives the framework for making and updating those decisions on an ongoing basis. We’re seeing a number of organisations moving to longer time horizons (for example, ten years) for their strategic framework. That may seem counter-intuitive, but it reflects the reality that the challenges and objectives of many organisations are enduring, and it is the tactics which need to adapt, while the direction stays constant.
Developing a strategic framework involves many of the familiar elements from any strategy process:
- Mission and values
- Goals (more concrete outcomes underpinning the vision, typically organisations have three to five)
- Enablers (operational capabilities required to deliver on the strategy, typically including things like fundraising and communications strategies, digital strategies, and people strategies)
Mapping your route to achieving the vision in terms of goals which are outcomes or ‘changes’ (rather than activities) allows for flexibility over time in how they will be delivered. Under an adaptive strategy, activity is not set in stone at the level of strategy, but instead set and monitored through workplans which are reviewed and updated more often. This makes your strategy more responsive to changing circumstances and allows you to shift tactics but keep moving in the same direction. Culturally, it introduces the expectation of change, rather than treating change as a problem.
A strategic framework that reflects on new information and responds to changing circumstances should yield better results and less upheaval at the end of a strategy period.
Collecting different sources of insight
To develop a good strategy, you need good insight. Insight is information which could guide your actions and decisions—about changing levels of need for the people using your services; about the roles being played by peers and partners alongside you. It will include information you collect yourself, and information from external sources
We used to call this ‘understanding the external environment’ but that framing needs to evolve to take account of the need for ongoing adaptation.
Firstly, we need to move away from the idea of ‘moment in time’ analysis on which the future strategy will be built and delivered against. If we want to build strategies which can evolve in response to the changing world, then it’s better to think about the different sources of insight which can be drawn into the development and ongoing adaptation of the workplans which lead us to achieve the strategy.
Secondly, we need to recognise that the external environment is not an objective ‘truth’ to uncover and understand. When we instead frame this as ‘gathering insight’, it’s easier to see that we want to hear and value a range of perspectives—the insight from professionals within our organisation and from peer organisations needs to sit alongside the lived experience of the people our organisation exists to serve, influencing our work at every step.
Thirdly, we need to stop putting ourselves at the centre. We all work within complex and intertwined systems in which shifts in one area may have unanticipated consequences for the people we’re working with. Taking a systems approach to strategy means putting your users at the centre, identifying the role of other actors in the system, and considering what you can do to influence, add to, or amplify the impact of others.
Using insight to make decisions
Insight can help us understand questions like: what is the nature of the situation or problem we want to address? Who else could we work with? What are the tools or levers we can use to make change?
This is turn helps us reflect on internal questions like: what are we good at? What assets do we have to make change? What holds us back from making the most of our resources and opportunities? What are the financial implications of different decisions?
Insight can help us understand the tensions and difficult choices we need to make. Some of these tensions are common across lots of organisations. Do we want to work with breadth, or in a more intensive, in-depth way? Do we want to focus on a particular age group? Or geography? Others will be specific to an organisation’s mission or its context.
Often, the insight will not lead to a single, indisputable answer. But it gives a common foundation for your charity’s leadership (staff and trustees) to have high quality strategic discussions and make difficult choices informed by the best evidence available. It also provides a format for ongoing review of those decisions through the life of your strategy.
Airing and understanding the differences of opinion is crucial to a successful strategy. Without this healthy debate, strategies tend to become too broad and all-encompassing. It can be difficult to prioritise or assess success without a clear steer on what you want to focus on. We’ll be thinking more about prioritising in a future blog.
Moving from decisions to a strategy framework
Once you’ve had these discussions and debates to develop the components of a strategy framework—vision, mission, values, goals, and enablers.
Exactly how you do so will look different for each organisation. There’s no ‘one size fits all’. It’s about finding the right mix of workshops and conversations and working behind the scenes to pull the threads together, drawing upon the expertise of trustees, staff, and the communities you serve to shape the content and the language you use. You’ll want to move quickly to build momentum and excitement for your new strategy, whilst still giving enough time for deliberation and robustness.
Remember to schedule when to collect and review insight through the life of your strategy so it can shape decisions. Some organisations use an annual planning cycle, others make this a live conversation during the year through their evaluation and learning processes.
How NPC can help
If you’re thinking about your strategy and how you can adapt to change, we’ll be continuing this discussion in person over the next few months, and we’d love for you to join us: