Hire a Thought-Partner, Not an Outside Expert

Rethinking Planning meeting 4 women of different ethnicities talking

We tend to think of strategic planning as a long process comprising many meetings among internal stakeholders (board and staff) working together diligently to turn their intentions into clear strategy to propel the work.  Often, we recognize we need the help of a consultant to add discipline to our thinking, create the process that will guide the work, and help us produce an “expert” plan.

We have been doing something like this process for over 20 years.  In 2018, after 20 years in this business, and after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Dautne Wright, and far too many others, I set out to build a consulting firm that centers the lived and professional experience of women of color in our approach, our work, and our personnel.  In the four years since, our team has had many deep conversations picking apart “traditional” consulting methods, and talking about the nonprofit colonialist practice where the voices of privileged, white, wealthy (often male) board members carry the most weight in the organization’s direction and future.  While valuable to the organization’s work, these people are volunteers, whose day jobs are often not in the nonprofit sector.  They often believe (earnestly) that what works in the corporate sector is what’s missing from the nonprofit sector.  To that end, they have steered the organizations on whose boards they sit to focus on concepts like ROI, impact, and fee for service programs to help these organizations become more “self-sufficient” – (which sounds eerily like Regan-era anti-welfare beliefs).  With due respect for their hard-earned corporate expertise, they do not know what it takes to run a nonprofit and would do well to listen more.

In these four years building a firm that is now sought after, we have repeatedly questioned our own “instinctive” practices (taught by a white supremacist society), questioned “best practices” (often developed and promoted by white men), and worked hand-in-hand with our clients, most of whom are also women, often of color, to center non-traditional voices, non-traditional practices like lived-experience and intuition, and rethink the models.  To be fair, we have not thrown out everything we learned in our careers, just because it is the norm.  But we have always questioned it.  What is emerging is a new way of approaching strategic planning that looks quite different than the traditional methods.  What follows are some of the changes we have made and continue to build-on as we deepen this practice:

Think critically about who should comprise the Strategic Planning Committee

Typically, strategic planning in organizations is shepherded by a “Strategic Planning Committee,” which most typically comprises a sub-set of board members and senior staff members, who work together to do the majority of the work of strategy development.  This approach perpetuates traditional hierarchy (those with positional power get to determine the best path forward) and ironically, centers those with the least exposure to the issues in coming up with the directions for the plan.

Again, we’re not in the business of throwing out everything we’ve learned, but we do counsel our clients to balance fewer numbers of voices with positional power with those of front-line staff who regularly interact with the constituents and who know what is on their minds.

We also take the time to coach this group away from the mindset that those with the most positional power know the most.  We encourage those with positional power to listen deeply before they start forming opinions, and we encourage those on the front lines to speak up without fear of being wrong or overridden.  We hold this safe equal space throughout the process to ensure a deeper level of learning about constituents needs is centered in the thinking.

Off-line, we also coach the Executive Directors to have more questions than answers.  Even if a board member raises a question about how things are done, we ask them to step back, or relay that question to the line staff.  These are all practices which model valuing the expertise of lived experience.

Frame good – and brave – strategic questions

A strategic question is an open-ended question that is critical for your organization to answer or address as part of developing its strategy.  We have written before on the power of asking the right strategic questions.  Your consultants use these questions to guide the gathering of input, research and other data to help feed your thinking.  Therefore, it pays to take the extra time to elevate the right issues for critical thinking that will help move your organization forward the way you would want.

Often, we encounter the following pitfalls in strategic questions:

  • They can be too self-referential, such as “how should we rebalance our business model?” or “what distinguishes us from others?”
  • They can be too generic or broad, such as how do we attract younger audiences for our work (every culture organization is wrestling with this question and no one has definitively answered it – how will that help you?)?
  • They can often embed assumptions that harken to colonialist norms, like “how should we strengthen our impact?”

It is important to vet the questions carefully to ensure they are getting at the most important issues for your organization.  Here are some criteria to help you vet these questions thoughtfully:

  1. What will the ability to answer this question do to help our constituents?
  2. What will the ability to answer this question do to clarify and strengthen your mission (the way you further a societal benefit)?
  3. Does this question help you examine the best approach to your reason for being?

Some great examples we’ve seen are the following:

  • Why does or should [our organization] exist? (or framed more eloquently, what is the need in the world for our organization?) – this is an extremely brave question, as it indicates a willingness to recognize your organization may not be needed, as well as a willingness to organize yourselves around the answer. When your organization was first created, the “need” you exist to address probably looked quite different than it does today.  Not enough organizations embrace this question and we believe they should.
  • What role should [our organization] play in elevating historically underrepresented voices in our mission ecosystem? – this question has an assumption embedded in it (that it is important to elevate historically underrepresented voices) which we acknowledge, and on which we believe every organization needs to take a side. You can’t be neutral on this.  Therefore, this is a good question to ask because it gets at why your organization should play this role – why are you most well-positioned to do what your stakeholders believe you should do.
  • What are the gaps in our field that no one is addressing and how important are these gaps to our effectiveness? – this is a two-part question – first, identifying the areas that no one else is serving, and second addressing whether that means your organization should step into those breaches or not. Both parts are critical for your future.  Perhaps most important though, is the word “effectiveness” instead of “success” (which is self-referential) or “impact” (which feels more important to people who fund the work than those being served).

Community Conversations

The strategic questions set us up to go out and gather input from stakeholders to help the Strategic Planning Committee answer those questions and develop the plan.  While we understand community conversations are not the only source of information to help organizations answer these questions, they are a very important one.  Community conversations help ensure we are not working in a vacuum where our approach and our existence are taken for granted.  That said, too often these are one-off conversations where the organization asks people for their input on the strategic questions, thanks them and then moves on – free to take or leave the feedback as they see fit.  Over time, folks have become more reluctant to participate in these conversations, because it feels like there is nothing in it for them.  In other words, there is no guarantee the organization will value and listen to their feedback, there is no compensation for their input, there is nothing in the practice of speaking with them that indicates the organization values their input.

Obviously, organizations can’t guarantee they will listen to every piece of input given, but to ensure it is not an exercise in futility, we offer the following as possible approaches to this part of the work:

Create “Thought Partner Circles”

Convene groups of similarly situated stakeholders whose perspective on the organization and your field you value, and help them continue meeting past the planning process. The first time they are convened will be to provide input to the strategic planning process, but rather than say “thank you, bye” consider asking them to convene periodically on a going forward basis to help advise you on the work.  It is important, and not very costly, to compensate them in some way for their participation in your organization’s future effectiveness.  This can range from providing food and drinks each time they convene, to offering stipends or gift cards, to providing staff support to the group (to all of the above).

Convene a stakeholder summit

Invite your stakeholders to come spend a day with you to give them an opportunity to deeply understand your questions and issues and work together to offer ideas for solutions.  We often facilitate these summits as appreciative inquiry summits, where we help the group develop and then answer the questions, through a generative, future-focused, lens that builds on the strengths that already exist in the organization.  Similar to the above, it is important to compensate the participants in some way for their participation – especially since asking people to spend a full-day of time on your organization is a big ask.  However, this does decentralize wisdom from the board to the people you most interact with.

Use focus groups more often than individual interviews

We recognize that everyone likes to do “confidential” interviews with their funders as a way of getting them more invested in your work, but this inappropriately privileges their voice just because they have money to offer. We have found that funders appreciate you doing this work without them as much as they appreciate participating.  Also, we believe you get more “bang for your buck” convening small groups of similarly situated stakeholders to provide input to your planning questions – this ensures more of a critical mass of opinions.  We also tend to make these conversations highly generative in nature – not just seek “answers” to our questions, but ask questions rooted in deep curiosity about their perspective and draw them out more.

Ditch surveys!!!

We say this a bit tongue-in-cheek, but also for real. Limit your use of surveys so they are rare (not frequent), only meant to gather statistically significant data, and closed-ended questions.  Folks are surveyed out these days, and there is a growing distrust of surveys in general, which limits participation to those who think like us.  We advise our clients to ditch surveys wherever possible, unless it is truly the only way to gather the quantity of input they seek.

Use generative forms of “analysis”

One way we are rethinking the role of consultants is as outside “experts.”  To be real, we are skeptical that anyone outside the work can be an expert in your organization’s work.  We value our thought-partnership with our clients tremendously, as they are the experts in the work – our role is to ask good provocative questions, hold spaces for generative problem solving, and in general, draw out the best ideas.  I don’t mean to minimize our years of experience in this field and our deep knowledge of the nonprofit sector, but we recognize that is one piece of data among many that are all equally valuable.

Therefore, we favor generative forms of analysis instead of us providing the analysis.  For example, we draw on the following:

Power Mapping

A facilitated group conversation about who holds what kinds of power over your work, so you can prioritize those most important to influence to deepen your effectiveness. Power mapping recognizes that organizations are always players in a system – they are influenced by, and can influence, the system.

Mapping the driving forces of change

A facilitated group conversation about what the forces are that will influence your organization going forward, and prioritizing those which are most critical to address.

Mapping Systemic Barriers

Mapping the systemic barriers that keep the power systems in their current state and discerning ways to break down those barriers. For example, we might ask, “what systemic barriers have made it difficult for us to fulfill our mission?  What is getting in our way?”

Making Meaning

A facilitated group conversation in which we post stakeholder quotes on the wall, do a gallery walk, and then reflect together by standing in a circle and speaking from the authentic voices of the people represented on the walls, reflecting in silence on what was heard, engaging in paired dialogue to share observations and discussion of emerging themes.  This approach is part of Theory U.

Generate ideas before rushing to solutions

With a clear picture of some of the issues at play and our strategic questions in mind, we spend time on generative idea development.  Too often, organizations want to complete the process in six months, which drives them to rush to solutions instead of taking the time to try on various ideas.  Our ideal clients are those who say, “we’d rather do it right than do it fast.”

We ask the group to reflect on the following:

  • If we thought about this from the perspective of creating meaning in this work, what might be possible for us to do?
  • Is that relevant to the issues we set out to explore?
  • Do these ideas have the potential to transform our approach?
  • What would those ideas look like in action?
  • Which of these ideas feel like the best paths forward?
  • Which feel most effective in terms of our relationships?

Internal Summit to Discern the Path Forward

Using the ideas generated in response to the strategic questions, the community conversations, and the generative analysis, we convene the entire board and staff in a full day (or two, if the budget allows) to do a deep dive into discerning the best path forward.  The first part of the agenda is spent in helping the stakeholders who have not been as involved in the planning process to catch up to what has been done and learned so far.  To do this, we walk them through mini versions of similar exercises.  The second part of the agenda takes that information and works with the group to distill the best areas of focus for the plan.  These become the goals of the plan.

Develop buy-in and complete the plan!

The most important part of any change initiative is achieving buy-in from those who will have to implement the change.  With the energy from the internal summit as the air in your sails, convene some cross-functional staff teams to flesh out the details on how those goals will be accomplished.  It is important in these meetings, not to structure them only as “how should we do this?” but include questions like “have you ever had a good idea you’ve held back from offering that you think might help us here?” or “have you seen great models from other organizations that you thought would work here?”  If we just ask staff to build out the plan they had only a moderate role in developing, it feels like forced labor.  If we continue the generative spirit and help them create great ideas for executing the plan, they will be excited to put it into action.

Organizations, understandably, often ask us “how do you ensure this plan won’t just sit on a shelf?”  This is an unfortunate symptom of the old approach of strategic planning which saw consultants as outside experts hired to “deliver” the strategy to the client.  Without gaining the internal buy in, those plans, which looked shiny and awe inspiring, lost steam the minute the consultant left the organization.

So what is the consultant’s role in all of this?

Throughout this piece, we’ve talked about eschewing the old concept that consultants are outside experts hired to analyze the problem and come up with the solutions.  If that’s the right idea, then what are we paying the consultants to do?

Keep the Process on Track

These generative conversations and brainstorming sessions can often devolve or wander and not result in anything concrete.  It takes tremendous experience to guide these conversations so they produce a good outcome in a predictable time frame.  We frame two objectives for every meeting we facilitate: a rational one (meaning the outcome we are seeking to produce) and an emotional one (meaning the experience we want people to have).  We also employ more traditional methods like strong project management, transparent and frequent communication, and real-time problem solving to keep the overall process on track.

 Frame Provocative, Generative Questions

It takes critical thought and experience to frame the kinds of provocative, generative questions that: a) move the process forward; and b) create a satisfying, meaningful conversation.

Gather Information

It is a lot of work to frame and manage the community conversations which are critical to a successful planning effort.   We coach our clients in thinking through who should be invited from a strategic perspective; we share ideas for compensation; we create drafts of the agendas the client can react to; we pull together materials for the meetings; we are objective third-party facilitators who can achieve greater transparency in the feedback; we distill the findings to a digestible format that will aid the group’s analysis.

Guide the Analysis

It takes greater skill and experience to guide the analysis of data than to just analyze it ourselves.  It would be easier and perhaps less expensive to hire us to analyze the data, but our analysis would not factor in the lived experience of those closest to the work, nor would it have any internal buy in.  We structure meeting agendas with a combination of generative questions and then consensus building around group conclusions.  We are able to manage the time so we take the group through the journey from processing the information, making meaning and developing conclusions all in one meeting.

Write Sellable Plans

Many of our team have deep experience in fundraising.  Therefore, we are good at framing the resulting plan in terms that will generate excitement from funders, partners, and investors to help you get the resources you will need to execute the strategy.

Develop Implementation Plans

We know the overwhelm that sets in when a consultant delivers a plan to a client and leaves.  Where do we start?  How on earth do we put this into action?  Therefore, we work with clients to develop the first year implementation plan so they have a clear plan of action to start making progress right away.  We prioritize things like easy wins to build momentum, while also laying the groundwork for longer term initiatives.

How Long Does All of This Take? 

Ours is a process-driven approach that often takes about a year to complete.  We believe this is critical to not only produce a plan that focuses on the right ideas, but also builds the strategic thinking skills of all internal stakeholders.  The value you derive is not only the plan itself, but a new way of thinking about your work, your place in the field, your influence, and your constituent’s needs.  There are consultants out there with a more transactional approach who produce the work for hire in about six months but that is not the work we do.




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