Martyn Drake: Ditch your five-year strategic plan

Why now, more than ever, we desperately need to start developing strategies that are truly fit for purpose

Virtually everything we get taught about strategy today evolved out of the work of legendary management thinker Peter Drucker, whose most influential theories emerged in the 1950s and 1960s and have dominated strategic thinking ever since.

But Drucker practised in multibillion-dollar businesses that could afford the time and resources to build big, analytical plans; to attack the competition in one highly stable, highly predictable market after another.

That was then, but this is now. There are few, if any, businesses that fit that description these days, and there’s certainly not one charity in the world that does.

We are not big corporations in stable, competitive markets. We are comparatively small, complex, mission-led organisations, in a shifting landscape of competition and collaboration, at a time of rapid change and huge uncertainty.

But year after year, non-profits continue to try to wrestle strategies from those same big, complex, analytical processes that shed virtually no light on the one or two meaningful conversations they actually need to have.

More than ever before, charities now need sophisticated, agile and fit-for-purpose strategies – and there are far, far better ways for them to develop the types of strategy they really need.

The first step is to ditch that old chestnut: the five-year strategic plan.

If you’ve ever reviewed one, you’ll know in its final three years it will have influenced precisely zero major decisions. The realistic planning horizon for most organisations is less than two years and any plans beyond that point will never see the light of day.

Yet fixing the aims and direction of the organisation to a longer-term “North Star” is more important now than ever – it’s the only thing that will stop you being dragged off course by the winds of change buffeting us all.

And so, a strategy needs two distinct timeframes: a long-term view defining direction and aims, and a short-term one defining the space for plans and initiatives. The consequence being that your strategy will need to be revisited and refreshed before the end of the planning horizon.

Yes, that really does mean that your five-year strategy should expire after two years.

The reason strategies become irrelevant is because stuff changes. After two years we end up replanning it at budget time anyway, because we know a hell of a lot more now than we did back then.

So why don’t we use that knowledge to refresh the strategy rather than over-ride it?

For one reason: because we spent months creating it and can’t face explaining to the board that we need to do it all over again.

But here’s the thing: boards only expect a five-year cycle because that’s what you’ve always given them. This is a corner we are choosing to paint ourselves into again and again.

To break out, we just need to shorten the cycle; and we can, because what we all know there’s no actual value in most of the stuff we do around strategy time – the SWOT analysis, the extensive data-gathering, the endless rounds of stakeholder engagement.

None of them ever made a meaningful difference to a strategy. If you’re gathering insights and listening to those people throughout the year, like you should, you will already know what the data will say.

Cut all that out. Start with the big questions your strategy needs to answer.

What are the critical challenges it needs to solve? What is the potential you hope it can unlock? What is the change you want to bring about, and the most impactful role you can play in making that happen?

Start with those questions, decide how you could set about answering them, then spend your time creating and exploring options, and on gathering only the information that will help you decide between them. That’s 90 per cent of your strategy done.

I’ve developed more strategies than anyone I know, and there are very few non-profits for whom a strategy can’t be developed in three or four half-day sessions, spread over a few weeks, if you simply cut to the chase.

It won’t be perfect – no strategy ever is – but in 18 months’ time you’ll know whether you’re heading in the right direction, and if necessary you can course-correct then.

Ditching the five-year plan and switching to an agile model might sound radical, but there’s nothing I’ve just told you that you didn’t already know. This is simply common sense.

Over the past 60 years, the concept of strategy has gone from a revolutionary idea to an industry of its own, to a vastly over-engineered artefact of a bygone age.

It’s long past time our purpose-led sector remade the concept of strategy to actually suit our purpose.

Martyn Drake is founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting

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