Monday, July 7, 2014

Governing with impact: Asking different strategic questions, gathering different data

Say the words "strategic planning" and many around you (especially those in nonprofit boardrooms) will respond with a labored sigh, a rolling of eyes, an occasional "Blech!" - and sometimes all of the above. There are multiple reasons why "strategic planning" has a bad reputation. But true or not, deserved or not, another fact remains:

The nonprofit board has a core strategic governance function for which it is uniquely responsible.  We can't afford to shuttle this multi-layered and mission-critical process to the periodic, formal planning processes that all too often fall short.

The primary focus of this video, featuring Hildy Gottlieb of Creating the Future, is the role of data analysis in the planning process. Understanding how, when and why to analyze data is important not only to strategic planning, but to all of the board's strategic thinking and decision making.

But Hildy also calls for a totally different approach to envisioning the future around which those plans are built. That is the focus of today's post. It's one that I suspect will ring quite familiar - and perhaps somewhat challenging to accept for some, given that the shift in thinking that Hildy challenges us to make may feel like an incredible leap from the reality that we believe we face.

In priming our thinking to understand how data analysis can be done differently, Hildy describes a common scenario for many boards and their nonprofits: initiating planning processes starting with what we don't like in our communities. From the beginning, we begin with a pretty serious limitation: what's wrong with now, rather than what's right about the future we want to create.

Hildy is right when she says, "What we're inadvertently doing is creating reactive plans, in the image of today, suggesting that the best we can possibly hope for for the future is today, minus the problems that we have."

Now, I get that. I've planned that. I've facilitated that. I also know that, if we're at our very best in that environment - and we succeed (a big 'if") - we get incremental movement from our current existence. Technically speaking, that's "progress." But it's not the kind of progress that gets us to the expansive vision of the future that we define and are accountable for achieving.

"We have to envision the future that we want to create and then ask the question, 'What do we need to know in order to take the steps to create that future,'" Hildy says. Naturally, she's talking about the data gathering and analysis. But she also places it in the context of focusing on the right end goal: a truly different, better future for our communities.

And that takes a different kind of planning process, one that starts with that better future and works back, rather than the flawed reality of today.

As my wise friend says in the video, "If we're going to create a future that is significantly different than what we have today, we cannot tether our plans to what today looks like."

That's where the scary part comes in. We look at our limited budgets, our facilities problems, our staff retention issues, and we believe that a 5 percent increase in client numbers and a 10 percent boost in donations is a pretty grand step forward. Maybe. But it's not enough to change the world or our communities.

What does that mean for your nonprofit?
For your board?
For the goals you set to reach your vision?
For the data you gather to understand the path to those goals?

As you begin to ponder those questions, I encourage you to explore the Creating the Future website and the rich resources available to help you with that process.

No comments: