Strategic Planning in a Rapidly Changing Environment

Part 1 of 4: Strategic Framework vs. Strategic Plan

Co-authored by Galen Ellis and Selma Abinader (www.abinadergroup.com)

How do you create a road map for the future of your organization that can adapt to changes in your environment over time? Consider developing a Strategic Framework instead of a Strategic Plan. What is the difference between the two?

Welcome to the first in a four article series on strategic planning.

To be successful today, all organizations must conduct their planning efforts in a way that accounts for our complex and rapidly evolving environment. The traditional Strategic Plan seeks to chart a course from Point A to a Point B many years in the future. While this is a very useful exercise, it often fails to factor in how individuals, organizations, and institutions interact, react, and adapt to each other or to the changing environment they’re working and living in.

Strategic Framework planning is a more on-going, flexible process that allows groups to customize their efforts toward meeting the vision year to year while making ongoing adjustments to their objectives and strategies based on progress, changing environmental conditions, funding, regulations, and other internal or external forces.

To better understand these two different approaches, let’s imagine we are working with one of our clients. In a facilitated process to develop a Strategic Framework, our client, a public health agency, selects their broad strategic directions for the next five years. These are carefully selected focus areas on assessed internal strengths, weaknesses, and forces in the environment that help or hinder the achievement of their vision. They are seeking to increase the consumption of and access to healthy foods and beverages, and increase participation in and access to physical activity through education, policy, and systemic change interventions over the next five years. If this client was completing a typical strategic planning process, they would go on to identify measurable objectives for each of their strategic directions to determine their programming for the next five years. But what happens if this organization suddenly finds itself with an unexpected shift in climate that makes the communities they serve become more apt to pursue policies that (for example) increase sales taxes on sugary sodas and other policy changes? Or the opposite – tides change and there is less political will to engage in policy change? Or perhaps budget priorities change the capacity to hire staff or provide grants and contracts to local organizations? Or if there is a new influx of resources or research pointing to the effectiveness of an approach not previously considered? These what if’s are endless, but by committing to broad, long-term strategic directions and then developing short-term implementation plans on a more frequent basis, this organization will be more flexible; and therefore, more likely to push the needle on these well considered priorities.

Both the Strategic Plan and the Strategic Framework are developed to systematically establish a fit between what an agency does well and what is happening in their external environment. They both focus on identifying and resolving factors in the internal and external environment that impact an agency’s ability to achieve its mission and desired vision of success.

The Strategic Framework is generally made up of the first three components, with the remaining components making up what we call The Tactical Implementation Plan. The Strategic Framework clearly defines how the organization needs to focus their efforts more in alignment with their values, vision, mission and the external environment on a more short-term, year-to-year basis.

Our advice in these rapidly changing times? Don’t create a strategic plan. Rather, build a strategic frame. With this flexible framework, you can still set out on long journeys from Point A to Point B, but with more pit stops to take in the view and evaluate the path. Think of it as the difference between bringing along a printed road-map or a smart phone app like Waze, which is constantly updating based on user input, weather and road conditions, construction, and the turns you decide to make. Your Strategic Framework is yours! It should be relevant to your needs as they evolve. Review it. Tweak it. Make it your own.

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