map the future

a photo of an illustrated topographical map of Iceland. the eastern side of the country is visible in the cropped map, though the legend in the corner hints that a much larger map exists in reality. looking at a map can be daunting (for me) or thrilling (for my husband). at the end of the day, they’re tools that show us where we need to go. and sometimes we photograph a map at a rest stop for our husband and then forget to show him until just now. oops! happy early birthday, babe!

Most of the companies I’ve worked for have had a strategic plan. These plans run the spectrum between incremental and ornamental. Some get by with unambitious tweaks to last year’s plan. Others go through months of revisions only for it to end up posted on a wall in a forgotten conference room. But rarely do I see people use strategic plans to dream!

dream the journey

Strategic plans get a bad rap among most people in the working world. One coworker of mine once told me they struggled to do their strategic plan work on top of their regular work. That’s definitely not what a strategic plan should do. The strategic plan work should be the regular work, and vice versa.

At their best, strategic plans sell a vision. They can be blueprints for implementing that vision. They are also a best guess about the future, which humans are notorious for being bad at. The best comparison I can make is that they work like old-school paper maps.

Strategic plans contain a lot of information, but not an infinite amount. If you’re in a rented van with several friends, you can use one to decide where you want to go. All you need to do is pick a destination, and start heading that way. This section was going to be about “finding a north star” but that’s how a thousand other blogs describe strategic planning. No! It’s a map!

finding a north star it’s a map!

Think of an organization as that group of people in a van. They all want to go somewhere, they might even agree on a cardinal direction to drive towards. This is where the dreaming comes into play. Where do we want to go? Is it a city? What does the city look like? Does it have skyscrapers? Incredible restaurants? Or is it an isolated beach with a view of the ocean?

Like with strategic planning, we need to know where we want to go before we can get there. I’ll use as my example a brand new organization. I want to start a non-profit that helps brand new food pantries get off the ground. When we finish our work, what do I want to see?

I want an organization that is accessible to all. I want to create a fire hose of funding and resources that we can direct anywhere it’s needed. I want to seek out community groups and help them get started. I want this organization to run as clusters of individual self-managed entities. These organizations operate under a single umbrella to de-duplicate overhead. Each cluster can make the decisions they need to for the benefit of their communities.

From that vision, we can create goals. I know it will be tempting to take all those simple sentences and turn it into one giant sentence. This doesn’t help people understand what you do! There is no genie that will fulfill your wishes if you separate them with commas instead of periods. Instead, the genie will skim your too-long sentence and only grant the keywords they remember.

how do we know where we want to go?

Strategic plans should reduce down into tangible goals and actions. Review your goals. Does everyone agree with them? Everyone in the organization should find themselves in the strategic plan. Recall my colleague in the story above. If their day-to-day work is not part of our strategy, how are they helping us get where we need to go? If their strategic plan work is separate from their daily work, when will they have time to do it? If their work doesn’t fit into our plan, we should consider (more than once) whether we should be doing it at all.

I’ll further extend my map metaphor. Everyone should know how they contribute to our strategy, as easy as pointing to their city on a map. The reverse is also true. Everyone should know at least a little about the entire strategy that drives our organization. That awareness helps people ground themselves into their work. It helps people, especially in large or complex organizations, feel more grounded.

now, the dreaming

I don’t start by thinking about our five year plan. I start by thinking about the environment we want to see where we’re done. That helps me consider context. If I want a world where nobody goes hungry, how long will that take me? Is it reasonable to think that we can do that in five years? It’s not wrong here to be audacious. Our destination might be very far away. But what small steps can we take today, or this week? What steps can we take next month, or next year?

This is also a good time to consider the scope of your goals. The organization I made a few paragraphs ago will have limited influence in its infancy. There’s a world in which one or two state legislators might have heard of us in a year. We may not have the influence we need to achieve our goals in a year. But what can we do? What can’t we do yet? The answers will be helpful when thinking about the actions for those goals.

how do we get there?

The team responsible for the work should be the same ones who write the goals. But now, each goal needs its own review time. I’ll pick one of my examples above.

A lot of my current job is about network-building, so I’ll use an example goal that’s close to that:

seek out community groups and help them get started

What are the actions I could take to achieve this goal? Here are a few:

  • identify community groups that need support
  • determine the most pressing needs they have
  • find a way to help them get those needs

This is the area where your goals and your scope come into play. Some of the community groups I know need funding to stay afloat. If nobody on the team has fundraising experience, we won’t be able to help them with that. Hiring that kind of staff support could be an action for this year. It could also be a goal for a future plan.

Next, break each action into a workplan. If this is the action we want to take, how will we do it? How much time will it take, or how many staff members will it take? It’s unreasonable, even for startups, to devote hundreds of hours a week to stay afloat. Either staffing should go up, or scope should go down.

how do we know where we’re going?

Key performance indicators (KPIs) are not supposed to be scary. Like the strategic plan, they shouldn’t serve as an extra thing to do or track down. The best KPIs have a direct line to the action they measure. They should tell us if we’re going in the right direction before we get to the end of the highway.

Take one of my actions from above: “identify community groups that need support.” My KPI might be X number of community groups identified this year. Breaking that action down into a workplan might reveal other useful KPIs. Number of community groups in each region we support. Or number of organizations that want what we are offering.

It’s not unambitious to set a low target. I once worked a grant where the KPI felt made up. None of our grant actions helped raise the KPI, but we were going to increase it by 50%. Setting an unrealistic KPI makes it harder to reach. It can also demoralize the people who worked hard and still failed to meet a made-up goal. Trust is important throughout this whole process. Trust the doers to plan. If it’s a place they want to go, they will set challenging targets. If people are uninterested in the destination, we’ll have a bigger problem than one red KPI on a dashboard.

what if we’re wrong?

Something I admire about teal organizations is how they perceive strategic planning. Members of a teal organization don’t spent time on unwieldy strategic plans. Instead, teal organizations describe themselves as having an evolutionary purpose. People in the organization have an intrinsic awareness of what gaps to fill or directions to move into. The tree, they say, does not have a five year growth plan. Yet it grows.

We don’t have to predict the future to create a plan for it. Strategic plans are tools, and tools are only useful if they are useful to us. I use my strategic plan as a guide, or a way to check my work. If the landscape changes, so can we. I will not be sad if my ten year plan to end poverty gets done in three. Setting a destination, no matter how far ahead it might be, is what matters. Whether our plans change or the world changes, we can always adapt and move on.

Strategic plans don’t have to be a nightmare. They don’t have to outlast us if they’re wrong. Make them realistic, use them as a guide, and we’ll end up exactly where we need to be.