Eight Practices for Strategic Agility

Rather than a glossy brochure that no one reads, your strategy should be an ongoing practice that informs your decisions and adapts as circumstances change.

Spend more than a few years working in the social sector, and you’ll notice two things about strategy: First, everyone claims to have one, even if it’s unwritten, and second, even if it’s written, most people won’t be able to tell you what it says.

There’s always some kind of thread connecting your actions to your goals. It might be unstated or unexamined, confused or illogical or (more generously) “implicit.” Nonetheless, it’s there, guiding your work. That’s your realized strategy.

But contrast this with the processes organizations often use to define, capture, and communicate their stated strategies. Every few years, expensive consultations yield an impressive-looking document with polished visuals and charts, shiny but forgettable. The organization’s work then drifts in and out of alignment with the strategy, though the staff may never notice. The only team members who look at the document a year later are the ones writing grants or reports, who ground descriptions of their work in the strategy as it’s written, even when it doesn’t reflect reality.

This disconnect represents major missed opportunities. Strategy—which goes well beyond a strategic plan—can be a powerful tool for aligning teams and partners in achieving common goals. It can provide the frameworks and processes for ensuring that our efforts are more than simply piecemeal.

When a document crafted more for external communication than for internal alignment stands in for strategy, we lose the space for deliberate adjustments to our realized strategy. The gap widens as news and attention cycles accelerate, constantly shifting our strategic landscapes. Technology improves our ability to respond to these changes, but we may often feel as though we’re failing to keep pace.

Our strategic plans have become less relevant, while the need for strategy has never been greater. For many, strategic planning is like the vestigial wings on an emu—a useless remnant of an earlier function.

Organizations that believe in the power of strategy are reviving strategic processes and keeping the results meaningful in their work. They’re taking a more agile approach: They’re acknowledging that change brings uncertainty, they’re collecting and responding to feedback, and they’re breaking down barriers to collaboration. More than something you have, strategy is something you do.

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