Our Chief Executive Oonagh Aitken’s take on strategic planning, as inspired by the recent National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) conference:

Strategic planning is in the DNA of most Chief Executives. However, I found my conventional thinking about it challenged during a workshop at this year’s excellent* NCVO conference.

Through a debate format, Girish Menon, Chief Executive of Action Aid and Srabani Sen, Senior Consultant at NCVO, battled it out (in the most respectful and civilised way) to convince the audience of their opposing views. Though (to give the game away) in the end, not so very opposing.

Girish asked us to consider that strategic planning is useless in a changing world.  When faced with an external environment that we cannot second guess (citing the migrant crisis, the economic crash and ensuing austerity policies, the rise of BRIC etc etc) setting down a 3 or 5 year strategic plan is doomed to fail. No sooner than the printer ink is dry, something will have changed which will derail the plan, leaving the leadership team to reset the organisation and take a different direction. Instead we should be spending our time contemplating external scenarios that will impact on our organisations and taking appropriate decisions.  While I was less than convinced of this, I did agree with his recommendation that charities in today’s world should scenario plan, be adaptive, demonstrate resilience in the face of difficulties and build a degree of flexibility into all that they do.

My own organisation, like many other charities, has faced a tough external environment  in recent years. With Girish’s words in mind, might the charity have had to transform less from 2011 onwards if we’d contemplated potential external scenarios more and earlier?

Srabani painted a rather different picture. She argued that good strategic planning (with buy -in from the senior leadership team, the Board AND staff) leads to much needed clarity of purpose with aligned goals, outcomes and success factors. While the strategy need not be rigid, it has to have a clear sense of direction,  priorities, and measurable objectives  – all reflected in the values and mission of the organisation. She put lots of emphasis on evaluation and measurement of impact, something else that Volunteering Matters is hugely invested in. Possibly unsurprisingly, given that we have just spent a number of months  working on our strategic plan incorporating the views of trustees and staff, I relate to this approach.

But interestingly both speakers were convinced that organisational values and behaviours are as important as planning.  And this included seeing planning as a collective endeavour where staff were given responsibility for their part in the planning process and their views were treated with respect.

The debate moved on to leadership and how crucial it is for the Chief Executive and the Chair to relinquish control and apply a diffuse leadership model (the leadership workshop at the same NCVO conference focused on this and is written up by Karl Wilding here) which values partnerships and collaboration, is never defensive and demonstrates a degree of humility.

What was the conclusion?  We were all beginning to agree that you needed to find a middle ground which took the best of both approaches.  A degree of planning and direction setting but the ability to look ahead along (even across) the horizon and be flexible if the external environment warrants it.  Some great quotes to end the session:

‘strategy is only good in retrospect’ and ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’

At Volunteering Matters we’ll be sticking to our strategic plan and we are not cancelling our Board and SLT strategy day but we’ll have an even keener eye to flexibility, taking the long view and doing more behind the scenes scenario planning.

*Let me put on record my contention that the planning team did not put a foot wrong this year in terms of keynotes, workshops and a truly excellent and inspiring final contribution from Julie Bentley, CEO of Girlguiding. And I am usually the most sceptical of conference goers.