Let me ask you a question: how long does food last in your fridge?
Three days? A week? A month?
We all know that it depends on the food. Fridges contain a collection of food items, some of which will last far longer than others – and because the question seems to imply all foods last the same length of time, we can see straight away that it’s an ill-founded question.
So, how long should a charity’s strategy last?
Three years? Five years? Ten years?
Without labouring the metaphor: just like the contents of your fridge, a strategy is a collection of very different things.
It contains a vision of the world that we want to see; a broad understanding of what it might take to bring that world about; and a definition of the roles your charity intends to play in making that happen – where you intend to play your part, how you’ll succeed in doing it and the principles and values that will guide you on your way.
Out of that might come a whole bunch of activities, change programmes, building blocks of capacity and capability and so forth, all underpinned by some financial models.
Each of those items will have a very different expiry date. The vision might last decades, but our understanding of how it might come about will evolve and change, perhaps within a couple of years.
In a shifting landscape of circumstances and other players, the best roles for our specific organisation to play will vary over time and we would hope that, even within a year or two, we will have found better ways to play them; better ways to contribute to the realisation of that vision.
Some of our programmes might take years to come to fruition; others we might ditch or rewrite three months in, because we’ve shown they won’t work, or found a much better way.
And every day, both within and outside our organisations, smart, empowered people on the ground are creating, exploring, innovating.
Do you really want to wait years to respond to that?
The idea that you should develop a new strategy once every three or five years is about as ill-advised as the idea that you should restock your fridge once every six months. So, why do we do it?
Is it because we think we can predict the future five years out? Because we think our people need it? Because our stakeholders and beneficiaries want or expect it?
The reality is that few people will ever read it and, of those who will, most will quickly forget it, knowing already that half of it will be dead in the water by the end of next year’s budget. Brutal, but true.
The irony is that I’m constantly told by chairs and chief executives they want their organisations to become more agile, embrace learning and innovation, and for their leaders and trustees to be thinking and operating far more strategically.
There is a simple first step for achieving all those things: ditch the five-year model and let your strategy live and evolve yearly, quarterly, monthly.
Go through it now with the team, throw away what’s out of date and put a use-by date on everything else. Plan in regular “strategy shopping” trips, and formal reviews of the big elements.
But above all, kill off the idea that your strategy is one big, fixed, monolithic “thing” that’s locked in for years.
That model isn’t needed, it isn’t helpful and, genuinely, nobody will miss it when it’s gone.
Martyn Drake is founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting