Monday, December 06, 2010

The Hard Work of Getting to the Real Strategic Issues

We typically utilize an issues based approach to strategic planning. In this approach, after gathering and analyzing internal and external data, leadership identifies 3 to 5 "most critical strategic issues, choices and challenges" facing the nonprofit. The remainder of the planning process looks at developing the most effective responses to these critical issues.

Critical issues are fundamental policy or program concerns that define the most important situations and choices a nonprofit faces now and in the future. Critical issues can reflect long-standing problems in the nonprofit, the community served or recent events that are anticipated to have a significant impact on the nonprofit and/or community served. Critical issues can also reflect major shifts in thinking that challenge "business as usual.” The selection of issues is important because it determines range of decisions the nonprofit will consider in the future.

In some instances, the nonprofit is already aware of the critical issues that the strategic planning process must help it address. In most situations, the planning process participants discern critical strategic issues as they work on the external, market and internal assessments.

Real differences of opinion will likely surface when everyone begins to express their sense of what the real critical issues are. It's important to engage members of the planning team in deep discussion to get at the roots of any disagreement. Sometimes it will be possible to define the issue in a way that addresses the concerns of all involved. Sometimes, what appeared to be disagreement at first, is not, after people really listen to each other. Just be careful of watering down the issue to make peace. By definition, critical issues are controversial.

In the effort to identify the short list of most critical issues needing to be tackled in the strategic planning process, sometimes you will discover tension points. An example – for a hunger action organization, the tension between "should we focus on feeding hungry people today" or "should we focus on longer-term organizing and public policy strategies to address the root causes of hunger". Sometimes the answer is one and not the other and sometimes it's some form of "both/and".

This all-important process of surfacing and working through deep differences of opinion about what the critical issues are and how to best articulate them is made more difficult when people speak in code to each other. Let me show you what I mean by telling you about organization I once worked with. This organization was a group that provided cable access to a small suburban community. Within the group there were two factions that would set each other off with their respective battle cries. On one hand, there was a group that was ardent on the subject of First Amendment freedom. They wanted anyone in the community that had a message to have easy access to cable technology. For them, First Amendment freedom had to be protected at all costs. On the other hand, there was a group that felt strongly that program quality had to be increased if they were going to build an audience of cable viewers that would assure continued existence of the community cable access channel.

But here's where the problem came in: when the program quality group heard the others talk about First Amendment freedom, it conjured up images of controversial cable programs that were sloppily done that would offend the community. At the same time the First Amendment group, when they heard the others talk about the need to increase program quality, this conjured up for them images of censorship -- programs being kept off the air. The words "first amendment" became code for poor quality controversial programs. At the same time, the words "quality programs" became code for program censorship. It was important for this tension point to be surfaced. A thorough discussion led the leaders of this group to eventually realize that the organization in fact needed to be both an advocate for First Amendment freedom and quality programming that would build a solid audience. A situation of both/and instead of either/or. Group members also realized that the organization needed to strengthen the orientation and training program for new video producers to ensure programs of quality that would attract larger audiences in the future.

In this example, deciphering each other's code words set the stage for a real breakthrough in the strategic planning process.

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