Strategic Planning: Find Good Footing

Woman running on trail

I began running in middle school. Track suited my abilities, and I was a promising rookie in the 400 and 800 sprints and relays. Fast forward a decade or two to the annual Corporate Challenge races in Nashville, Tennessee. I was no longer a runner, but companies gained points for employee participation. I agreed to run a quarter-mile race to bump our company team numbers. After overcoming the pain of “training” for that short run, I was determined to hold my gains and keep at it. A quarter mile became a mile, then three, then five. I set my sights on finishing a marathon, and with the inspiration of John Bingham and many, many others, crossed the finish line of the Marine Corps Marathon just under my goal time. I’m still a runner, and while I prefer running local roads, every now and then I take off for a trail run. It’s an entirely different experience. It’s exhilarating.

On the track, the way is smooth and predictable. Each competitor begins on a lane with well-marked boundaries. What matters most is speed and endurance. Running the roads, the lines are gone, but the way is clear. We’re all running the same route, but there is usually plenty of room even if thousands run with us. Speed and endurance are still the decisive factors. But on the trail, there are no real boundaries. There are no lines. The way may not be clear. Trails can be treacherous, making it difficult to find good footing.

For many nonprofits, following a strategic plan was once like running track. Now it’s an exhilarating trail run.

When Agility & Adaptability Matter Most

If the trail is narrow and there are more than a few runners, things can get crowded. Even if you’ve been on that trail before, the conditions may be more challenging and the footing less sure. Speed and endurance still count, but the more decisive factors for success on the trail are agility and adaptability. Are you agile? Then you move quickly among obstacles while staying balanced. Adaptable?  You to choose your next move amid constant change and uncertainty.

There was a time when the board could make a 5-year strategic plan with confidence that the world would be stable for that length of time. It was like running on a track. But now nonprofit boards get to develop their trail-running skills. Strategic planning cycles have shorter time spans and must adapt more rapidly to shifting economic and social conditions.

A strategic plan can help you find good footing, but think of it as a series of signposts on a winding, wooded trail— rather than painted lanes on a smooth, oval track.

10-Minute Board Discussion

What does it take for us to do well?  How do agility and adaptability relate to the success of our organization?


Creative Commons image by Flickr user lululemonathletic

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