Planning and Culture
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” There are a host of nuanced explanations for what that actually means, but the basic point is pretty straightforward—if you want to have an impact (through your strategies), you need to pay attention to your culture.
A strategic planning process is a great opportunity to consider this relationship. You can take advantage of the shared commitment to increased impact inherent in this process to address cultural issues that may be barriers to achieving that impact. Your plan objectives and timelines should in turn be shaped by how you answer cultural questions—how aggressive is the plan, how comfortable are the risks associated with it, how much does the plan depend on staff behaving in unfamiliar ways or learning new skills. The planning process is an opportunity to align strategy and culture so that no one gets eaten.
Understanding your culture.
Not all aspects of culture are worth addressing in this context. Focus on those that seem most likely to influence your ability to implement plans. For this exploration to be effective, try to avoid labeling cultural elements as positive or negative. Judgments get in the way of both candor and create obstacles to understanding. There will be time for judging down the road when you start thinking about culture change.
Relating to the planning process, some questions you may want to ask yourself and others are:
· What are your common decision-making processes?
· Do staff expectations about decision-making generally match the reality?
· How highly do you value inclusivity and consensus?
· How highly do you value expertise?
· What does disagreement look like and is it generally productive?
· Do staff and the Board (assuming both are participating) share similar cultures? Do staff generally feel that the Board understands their work? Does the Board generally feel that staff understands the mission?
The final plan must also confront your culture. If you’ve worked in more than one organization, you have a sense of the broad range of cultural responses to a plan. Some organizations incorporate plans effectively, using them as guides to design and implement their work. Others, simply ignore them. Most are somewhere in between.
Put aside, for a moment, the idea that it’s good to follow plans and bad to work around them, and ask yourself these questions:
· Does your organization do a good job of taking advantage of unanticipated opportunities or changes in the environment?
· Is innovation a priority for you?
· Do you make an effort to stay in the public eye and engage your supporters by weighing in on current events?
· Do you attempt to learn from your programmatic efforts to increase your impact on an ongoing basis?
Your answers may point to a culture that’s less reliant on plans than on adapting to circumstances. Smaller organizations, those without steady income streams, and those with organizations that highly value working in coordination with other organizations are all likely candidates for not prioritizing adherence to plans.
Commonly, the cultural challenges to adopting plans are rooted in dysfunction at least as much as they are in circumstance or strategy. Your senior leader may get bored easily, your organization may have shiny object syndrome (more on SOS another time), you may lack solid management or good infrastructure to support data collection and accountability. Identifying these weaknesses—however painful—sets your strategic planning up for success far more than if you were to ignore them.
Learn from your last plan.
It’s tempting to treat a strategic planning process as a new beginning. Likely, there are different people at the table—maybe even you. But this is delusional. This is almost always NOT your organization’s first planning exercise. The cultural response to that planning process and the plan it spawned can provide you valuable insight into what to expect this time around.
Again, asking questions is the right place to start. Depending on how long you’ve been in your role, you may be able to answer many of them yourself. But even if you think you know the answers, consider asking others, both those who were present the last time around, whether they participated in the process or not, and others who have joined more recently.
· Has the plan proven to be useful? Think about this both in terms of how it was intended to be used and how it actually was used.
· Did the plan lead to a shared sense of purpose among staff and the Board?
· Is everyone familiar with your current strategic goals? Are these part of your orientation for new employees?
· Do you think about the plan when you’re faced with important decisions?
· Do your annual work plans reflect your current strategic plan?
· Do you have easy access to indicators that measure progress against the plan? If so, are these just trotted out for the Board or are they used as a management tool?
· Have you amended your plan in response to challenges or successes in implementation?
Now you can be intentional about planning AND culture.
With a greater appreciation of how plan and your culture play together, you are in a better position to frame your planning process and define more meaningful objectives along with necessary culture changes. If your prior planning was a good fit for the organization and generated a useful plan, just repeat. If not, this is the time to think about making some adjustments.