Over the past year I’ve interviewed dozens of charity chief executives for a book that’s coming out next April. One of those interviewees told me how, a few years ago, in a meeting with about a dozen other charity leaders, he asked why they delivered the types of services that they delivered.
"Not one of them had a good answer," he explained. "They were all just doing it because that’s what they’d always done. It was the same for my organisation. Why do we do that? Why is that normal for our sector?"
It’s normal because most charities’ strategy development is, in reality, dominated by current challenges: funding gaps, political concerns, competitive pressures and so forth. The bigger questions don’t get a look-in.
So what they invariably end up with is not so much a strategy as a three-year plan to do pretty much what they’ve always done, but a bit better, a bit more sustainably, a bit more of it.
Point a camera through a wet window and it will automatically focus on the drops on the pane itself, missing the bigger picture of the world outside.
Point an executive team at a process to develop a three-year strategy and the same thing happens: they will automatically focus on the foreground challenges, the imminent issues and the year-one numbers – the raindrops on the window pane – rather than on realising the more distant vision beyond.
Professional photographers have a solution for this: they use a long-lens that can focus only on the mid to long-distance. They can shoot through rainy glass, through chain-link fences, leaves and grass, to capture the distant image that they want to see.
Professional strategists do the same, compartmentalising the strategy process, disconnecting it deliberately from business planning and budgeting, and using specific techniques to focus a team purely on the long-term, on the vision and what’s required to achieve it, before slowly pulling back to the more immediate future and what needs to be developed, designed and built over the coming years.
The tactical problems and urgent issues facing any organisation will always force themselves to the top of the day-to-day agenda.
This is why it’s so essential to balance them with a long-term strategy, distinct from those issues, one that genuinely grapples with achieving the ambitious visions for society that headline most charities’ home pages.
So the next time you’re looking at reviewing or renewing your strategy, take some advice from this professional strategist.
Don’t start with a recent performance review or a SWOT or competitor analysis, and don’t link the process with planning or budgeting, because all of those will serve only to obscure your view.
Instead, grab your long lens. Start with the vision, think about how it could be achieved, the structural and societal changes that would be required, the barriers that would need to be overcome. Ask what would need to happen over the next, say, five, ten, fifteen years, both within and outside your organisation, for that vision to be realised.
That’s the place to focus your thoughts if you’re going to end up with a strategy that’s more than just three more years of "the same plus a bit".
Martyn Drake is founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting