Posts Tagged ‘strategic thinking’

Avoid Strategy Sabotage

October 22, 2012

A primary challenge in strategy development is anticipating the future – correctly. It’s a tall order. Strategy creates public and private value. It’s central to every organization and team.

Determining the actions most likely to secure your intended results employs strategic planning. Creating strategy, for a program or entire organization, generally requires a series of explicit steps. While a routine function, the process of strategy development offers plenty of opportunity for error.

In this list, I’ve noted the most common “sins.” Consider these as you guard against missteps and improve the quality of your strategy development.

1. Failure to know where you are now. Clarity about your current situation is essential if you are pointing towards a new target. Strategy has everything to do with decisions about the optimal route for the outcome you intend. If you don’t know the current situation then you have no good data on how to create forward action. Shaky ground isn’t equal to a solid foundation – so it’s vital to get this part right.

2. Difficulty in detecting patterns. Your “read” of the context and forecast for the future is important to analysis, interpretation and application. Seeing patterns and anticipating new ones are vital to strategy development. Testing whether others “see” things the same or different and knowing why is a good idea.

3. Lack of choice points. A clear specification of issues and their perceived implications are vital in strategy development. Framing both the challenges which impede progress and the context which will catalyze motion are critical to decisions about forward actions.

4. Unwillingness to acknowledge bias. We all have opinions and perspectives based on prior experience and training. How deeply these are held and whether we can accommodate and explore new mental models affects the discussions and review of strategy. Being aware of bias can mitigate it.

5. Absence of actionable measures. A few and the right measures are important as touchstones for determining progress. To inform decisions or actions, measurement must be part of any strategy. It provides feedback data to confirm existing direction and to indicate necessary course corrections. Winston Churchill said it.” However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”

6. Reluctance to review capacity. It’s possible to desire a new outcome, but the potential for achieving it relies heavily on what assets your program or organization has in hand for execution. Do you have the skillful talent integral to the work ahead as well along with the financial resources and time to make results a real possibility? An “internal audit” will surface both needs and assumptions about organization/team capacity that are key to strategy success.

7. Inadequate engagement. Who participates in strategy development matters a lot. It’s also vital to the subsequent socialization and implementation of strategy. Be sure dissent and minority opinions are aired to “kick” strategy. Careful consideration should be given to who participates and when in your process.

Lisa Wyatt, Ed. D. is chief strategy officer and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See :

The Best Combination

February 28, 2011

How can nonprofit organizations best provide responsive charitable services and simultaneously create social change?

A two-part answer helps significantly: improved governance and management. Strength in both these areas is essential to organization performance.

Great Governance
Trustees of nonprofit organizations play a critical role via tenacious, thoughtful leadership that insists on choices which yield measureable progress. Their governance role is specifically designed to review management competencies and associated organizational performance. Their function, in trust, to multiple publics is as a watchguard for the organization’s mission. It could be high quality education, hunger relief, women’s independence or children’s safety. As the “guard,” trustees are not necessarily cozy protectors of staff. Trustees don’t seek self-interest, they seek the common good.

These roles can put volunteers in a tough position. Regardless, their first duty isn’t as social support for each other or staff but to ensure that the community is well-served. This is their principal accountability. They should guide, question, provoke, measure, encourage and demand organization performance. Trustees must be willing to be unpopular in order to tackle tough decisions. It is both necessary and fair for trustees to set explicit, high expectations. As demands on time mount, doing a great job in governance isn’t easy.

Capable Management
When talented management does their work well they lead organization priorities and plans. They interact responsibly with both trustees and their peers in allied organizations. Capable non-profit managers have a long list of critical responsibilities. While surveilling and interpreting the external environment, managers also gather resources, develop staff competencies, communicate effectively, skillfully design and implement appropriate programs for those in need and pursue a change agenda (to erode the conditions that disable people). Some nonprofits provide charitable services, others exist to create social change and some have a mix of both agendas.

The requisite talent for this work include both attributes as well as knowledge and skills. A commitment to transparency, integrity, equity, empathy, learning, candor, others, and passion are all on my must-have list. Professionals believe and act on these values or they don’t. Critical knowledge and skills include a broad repertoire of design, planning, analysis, evaluation, facilitation, applied research, political acuity, policy, change/project management, marketing, communications, coalition–building and distinct subject matter expertise (in education, health, youth, seniors and other areas). Capable management can lead and be team members. They have enough wisdom and experience to coach others.

Strong : Strong
The best combination of governance and management is when both are strong. A strong executive can take advantage of a weak board or engage them in inappropriate roles. Similarly, a weak executive will never deliver what’s needed for an organization to perform. The relative proficiency of the nonprofit sector to process change is an essential, adaptive reflex. It could mean fewer organizations. It should mean a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo and new ways of working.

We all need talent in both functions that will take strategic, progressive action. The “exempt” reference that precludes tax payments isn’t a free pass at accountability – whether in governance or management.

-Lisa Wyatt Knowlton, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also a W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow.Contact her

Strategy 101: Making Great Choices

December 16, 2010

If Chicago is your destination…what’s the best route to get there?

Part of the answer depends on where you are now and what resources you have. Creating great strategy requires a series of practical and coherent choices.

If you have plenty of time, modest resources and like to travel by train, then Amtrak might be your best option from Battle Creek. If your timeline is tight, you’ve got a reliable car and live in Detroit, then I-94 could be a realistic choice. You could take a train or drive from Los Angeles. But, to attend a meeting in Chicago tomorrow morning from California means   neither of those choices for transport is best. They’re not strategic.

 Where Are We Now?

One of the most important factors in making choices that will get you to Chicago is knowledge about the departure city – or current location. This step can’t be skipped because any assumptions about it introduce significant risks for a poor choice. If you are planning significant education reform in your school district or revising economic development plans, there must be a deep understanding of the current status. It’s highly unlikely you will make optimal choices if you don’t know your starting place. Thorough and unvarnished determinations of here and now are critical inputs to other steps in strategy development. Skillful market analysis, benchmarking and related processes can be critical to informing decisions that affect your strategic plans.

 Recall that while departure cities and resources varied, the desired result (Chicago) didn’t. It was clearly specified.  Very few plausible or even feasible choices can be made if the current status and desired result are indeterminate. Specificity supports success in these matters. While it’s possible (and wise) to test the viability of any given result with different combinations of resources and strategy, it’s essential to be clear about both before any final choices are made. Together, the current status and intended results act as “tent stakes” for your strategies.

 Conditions Count

What works under what conditions is part of what you need to know to make the choices that yield great strategy. Knowledge about your organization’s past performance (via evaluation) can be very helpful at this point. And, information about how others have accomplished similar work can bring value. You also need to know about resources. Your options for getting to Chicago on a $200 travel budget are different from an allocation of $1,400. Choices change again when you have 24 hrs or 5 days.

Strategy is the configuration of factors to create choices which can secure your intended result. Choice selection should rely on evidence and distinctive capabilities. Understanding your implementation strengths and weaknesses should influence your range of options. If you don’t have a driver’s license then car travel isn’t precluded but might be more difficult than Greyhound. A realistic appraisal of capabilities is an important criteria for “grading” and ranking choices. Coherence is also part of the recipe in strategy because the relative alignment among factors affects success.

 Strategy and Consequence

While strategies are essential to effective work in any sector there is far more attention to them in the private sector because without great strategy (and execution), the consequence is a failed enterprise. In the rough and tumble clear-cut review of revenues to expenses, either margin is generated or not.  However, in the nonprofit sector, organizations can be buoyed by enthusiasm for a great purpose. The costs of the enterprise are subsidized and their organization development struggles are sometimes framed as simply a lack of resources when what’s missing is great strategy. People in love with a wonderful mission can overlook strategy because of commitment or affiliation with a cause.

The press of full calendars, lots of meetings and random activities are not synonymous with strategy. Don’t confuse busy with strategic. Organizations paralyzed by indecision or those unwilling to make choices have a tough time with strategy. Those who swim in a highly political or largely unaccountable milieu have no need for them. In these contexts, the measures for progress have much to do with the dynamics of power – not performance.

While not simple to develop, strategies are essential. They reflect thoughtful, careful, tough choices that are directly connected to results.


Lisa Wyatt Knowlton, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also a W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. For more, see :

%d bloggers like this: