‘In the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.’
It’s hard to move in the voluntary sector without tripping over a strategy. Advice columns in the sector press exhort you to have a strategy for everything; volunteers, fundraising, managing your people…you name it there’s supposed to be a strategy for it. And it’s not just charities with the strategy obsession. Local and central governments also have strategies for dealing with us and with the issues we’re tackling – everything from youth unemployment to public health.
But what seems to be entirely missing in all of this, is discussion of what a strategy is, how you go about coming up with one, and perhaps most mysterious of all, what a good one looks like. There may not be a right answer to these questions, but I’m going to offer my opinion based on a misspent decade as a strategy consultant.
What is strategy? – Definitions include everything from a plan for deploying resources (drawing on the military origins of the word), to a vision of the future and a plan for getting there. There are also those who believe that strategy is a form of story-telling; a story about a desired future. This isn’t a daft notion, we have some power to predict how events will unfold, but fundamentally the future is unknowable and we can only make educated guesses about it. We are also trying to influence the future, we want things to turn out a certain way, and so we work to make that happen. Thinking about strategy as narrative is a good way of capturing these realities. It also makes it something that can be easily communicated, and that people can believe in.
How you come up with one? – A story about the future is a good analogy for a strategy, but it shouldn’t be a work of fiction. The narrative should be rooted in what is already known and what can be surmised, based on the fundamental truth that if you want to change a situation then you need to first of all understand it. That’s why the pages of strategy textbooks are stuffed with analytical models and frameworks. Ways to identify broad trends in the world that will be relevant, analyse markets, and assess an organisations’ strengths and weaknesses. There’s a risk of going over the top with this and becoming distracted from action, but good strategy-making requires some analysis. It should involve thinking about what is going on in the country that is likely to affect you (changes in policy and in people’s needs), your corner of the ‘market’ (the availability of funding, what others are up to, who you can collaborate with), and your own organisation (what has previously worked for you, what are you good at, and areas you need to improve). Asking these basic questions will put you in a solid starting position.
What does a good one look like? – So, a strategy is a story about the future based on a sensible amount of analysis, and hopefully some creative thinking too. But how do you know what a good one looks like? There are two basic tests I like to apply:
- A strategy tells a story, and that story must be compelling. It therefore needs to be coherent and logical, and make sensible assumptions that draw on an understanding of the organisation’s circumstances
- And crucially, it must also be capable of being implemented. This means setting objectives that are stretching but have a good chance of being achieved, and providing clarity on the practical steps that individuals need to take. However cleverly a strategy is constructed, unless it can be delivered,, it will remain a work of fiction
At NPC we’ve been working on an approach to developing strategy for charities. It’s based on our experience of working with dozens of charities large and small, and we think blends the best of private sector theory and frameworks, with a dose of good old voluntary sector common sense. More on that soon…