The summer after I graduated from college, I completed a 3-week Outward Bound adventure in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. We summited three 14,000-foot mountains (14ers), I saved myself with my ice axe from sliding into a pile of jagged rocks and walked for miles along the Continental Divide. It was an extraordinary experience that taught me how to survive in many ways.
The last week of the experience, our guides left and we had to navigate to base camp using our newfound mountaineering skills. The route my group chose was over a high mountain pass (a horseshoe between two mountains) that we had to cross in one afternoon. When we reached the field below the pass, a storm was visible, so we tried to make it over the top before the lightning began. Unfortunately, the storm closed in and we could not make it over. We attempted to cross the pass two more times that day without success and were now cold from the rain and sleet. One of our members became hypothermic and we had to pitch a tent at the bottom of the pass to warm her up. Our adventure was not going as planned…
If we had decided that the original plan could not be altered despite the storm, we could have easily been struck by lightning. We had to weigh the risks and really understand our true goal: get back to our families, not just meet our rendezvous point by a certain time. We began to look at our choices. We had tried to get over the pass fast enough between fits of lightning. It didn’t work. We studied the maps looking for a lower elevation to hike around the mountain, but it would take extra days and if search parties were out, they might not find us. We studied the sky and could see an opening in the clouds maybe in a few hours. We decided to spend the night and make an early go of it in the morning. We took care of each other. We listened. We made a short-term plan that worked for us all. It was something we did the whole adventure and it had become such an ingrained habit that when crisis arose, we automatically took care of each other without panicking.
We did arrive 10 hours late to our rendezvous point and there were some worried guides, but we were safe and would make it back to our families. We kept the focus on each other, our mission, and adapted along the way.
Things almost never turn out exactly the way we plan, so why are our mission-driven organizations spending months planning the next 3 or 5 years? We have all experienced static strategic plans that are thrown off course; in fact, INC magazine reported that 67% of strategic plans fail. Constraints and complexities make it too difficult to predict a reasonable fundraising outcome against the mission deliverables you are counting on. Budgets become moving targets and inflexibility in a multi-year plan makes it impossible to make quick decisions. With perpetually changing circumstances, some projects aren’t even relevant after one year. If a team does decide to pivot and make an unplanned investment, it rattles the organization, and the original plan falls apart.
By taking an adaptive approach to strategic planning, organizations can be creative, collaborative, and responsive instead of reactive. Adaptive strategic plans are iterative plans that engage reflection, implementation, and planning in recurring shortened intervals. This ensures that current circumstances and new opportunities are incorporated into goals and objectives. For nonprofits, there is a rolling annual process, with program increments usually 3-6 months long.
Forecasting the strategic direction for 18-24 months is a good time frame. There is clarity in the near-term with less definition in the medium to long-term. Strategic behaviors and simple rules guide decisions through each iterative cycle, ensuring mission and value alignment in all decisions.
In creating an adaptive strategic plan, some traditional strategic planning activities may be necessary, depending on clarity in the organizational purpose, structure, values, and related behaviors. The biggest difference is that your facilitator works with your team to create a culture that values individuals, interactions, and how you collectively respond to change. There are tools you need, but the quality of interactions and sense of belonging are critical to being adaptive.
An adaptive strategic plan is a values-based approach to developing key objectives that can change through evolving external or internal forces. Basically, the future is uncertain and planning for it means that we are frequently wrong – BUT we can prepare for that inevitability and be LESS wrong. With principles designed by the organization’s teams to guide strategic decision-making, a sudden crossroads can become a clearer path. Review cycles and meetings are created in a way that complements your culture, connects people for a shared purpose, and focuses on outcomes over outputs. An adaptive plan is a living, breathing set of tools and culture that engages the entire organization and grows with you.
Mission-driven organizations are never static – we know this! Let’s build in creativity, evaluation, and change into all our strategic plans. In 2020, the nonprofit sector probably filled an entire dump with useless, static strategic plans. It doesn’t have to be that way. With crises like climate change, pandemics, or opportunities like surprise donations from McKenzie Scott, we need to be prepared to pivot at any point in the future.