Listen to The Small Nonprofit podcast on your favourite platform:

podcast: Playing to Win - a strategy framework with Josie Fung

blog photo: Playing to Win - a strategy framework with Josie Fung

Strategy. It’s one of those things we all know is important, but we never find the time to do it properly. We're so used to the inertia of our work and it's really hard to make time to undertake a strategic planning process.

Today's guest is Josie Fung the Executive Director of I Think, which is a program based out of the Rotman School of Business at the University of Toronto. I'm really excited to have her on the podcast talking about “playing to win,” which is a framework that helps us think about our strategic planning and aspirations.

We're so busy - who has time for strategy? What is strategy anyway?

Strategy is important to small organizations because they have a lot of constraints - whether it's your time because you're a small shop, you only have a few people working with you, or that you don't have a lot of money or funding. You're always trying to make a choice between doing one thing or another. And that's what strategy is.

Let's dive into some of those choices because it can feel very overwhelming and it can, in fact, feel like we have an endless array of choices that we can make as organizations. What are some of those core questions that help define the scope of choices and help us focus on where to where to be thinking?

Roger Martin has an approach called “Playing to Win.” In some organizations, organizations struggle with the idea that it's about winning because if someone's winning, someone's losing. But what we're actually trying to say is if we have a mission and vision in mind, how are we going to actually play to accomplish that as opposed to simply just doing a little bit better than we did yesterday? And so the questions or the dimensions of choice that we care about are five questions.

What is our winning aspiration? And not just our mission and vision, but what is it that we want to accomplish in the next three to five years that excites us and gets us out of bed.

Where to play. This is essentially setting your playing field. Who are our clients? Who are our funders? What's our product we’re providing? What's the geography that we're providing this in? Who are we serving these dimensions to help us identify? What's the space that we're actually exploring?

How to win. This is about how do we actually win, not just our funders, but also enabling the change. It’s about bringing your Theory of Change to life and how do you make it core to what your organization does. The most important part of this piece is that you're starting to think about how do you differentiate what you do from other organizations so that you're not simply all trying to accomplish the same thing in the same space. You're actually trying to engage in different ways.

Capabilities. What are the capabilities we need to accomplish our winning aspiration? What does it look like when we are aligned with our goals?

Systems. This is often forgotten, but perhaps the most important. What are the systems you need to sustain and support your work.

How this might play out for an organization as they start to ask these, seemingly straightforward five questions?

When you're working through strategy, I would actually start not with winning aspiration but with where to play. And so the first question and when it comes to where to play is saying, “who are you trying to serve?”

For example, is an organization that serves young leaders. They're not trying to serve all youth. What they said was “we want to serve young leaders, people who self identify as young leaders and want to help identify and dismantle barriers and mental health in their communities.” That's the first choice: your client, or your user that you're serving. Their second choice is geography. They're focused on Canada.

The third choice is their choice to focus on training and empowering those leaders and that's the product that they're providing to the clients that they're trying to serve. Why that's particularly interesting is because if you contrast it with the Kids Help Phone, it provides a direct service to youth in their moments of need. Whereas is saying, “we're going to go work a little further up the food chain and explore training as a way and a mechanism to shift how people think about their mental health and inspire others to develop resilience in their own mental health.” When we're talking about the strategy, we’re talking about the coherence between what they're providing and the things that they choose to do.

Answering all those questions really reinforces the impact we want to have in the world and what that looks like in a tangible way. Let's talk a little bit more about how to win.

How to win traditionally is talking about your competitive advantage. This is about what are the things that you do better than any other organization in order to serve your clients better. And we often talk about how do you win with your clients or customers, and how do you win against your competition? In the charity and not for profit spaces, I know we don't often like to talk about competition, but we know we're in some ways sometimes competing for the same dollars. So competitive advantage is really honing in on what do we do better than anybody else?

Let's talk about capabilities. I feel like that brings up a fear for people, which is like, “Oh, what if our capabilities don't match what our current capabilities are and how do we grow to a place where we can actually do the work in, in the most meaningful way?” I feel like this is where things start to get a little scary and a little more hands-on.

When it comes to capabilities, I often say to organizations, spend the next 10 minutes and write down every capability you think your organization has. And so capabilities, I mean it could be storytelling, it could be fundraising, it could be building relationships, it could be, managing digital assets. Basically, what are the categories of activities that your organization does? Then take a look at those lists and then beside each of them, rate them.

Is it a red? We do it but we're probably not very good at it.

Yellow? We’re okay.

We’re a leader - green.

I'm gonna imagine almost every organization I've worked with ends up with a list of 15 or 20 things that they believe that they have capabilities in. And then I say, “truly which five are the most important?” And those five, then I would ask yourself, “do they actually help you build your competitive advantage? Do they support your how to win?”

As a very simplistic example, every not for profit organization has to have some sort of finance capability. I would challenge any organization in the not for profit space to say that you are world-leading in that because, to be honest until you reach a certain level, it's probably not the thing that you're investing significantly.

What most organizations do is they turn to the board of directors and look for someone who has that expertise so that they can borrow that capability. So when you're thinking about the top five, you want to be the best in the world at then it's to say, “well, do we want to borrow this capability?” And to borrow could mean partnering. It can be volunteers, etc. Or you could also build the capability, which is how do you nurture people in your organization to be able to achieve that capability so that they're delivering the value that you're building. And then the last lastly is in rare circumstances, you're buying the capability. And that also may look like hiring contractors to fill a particular gap.

Let's talk a little bit about management systems. We've had podcasts episodes on this before, but I think that this is actually a huge challenge for organizations because it can be really overwhelming. What are some of the core management system? How do we identify what management systems we need?

Anytime you want to build a habit in the organization, something that you do every week, every month, every year, that's a system. So it may be technology-based, it might be a meeting, it might be a ritual. But making explicit what are the systems that are important to you as an organization is incredibly important.

Now we skipped over the winning aspiration at the beginning is now when we start to come back to that or have I already missed the boat on it?

The winning aspiration is something that is achievable, feels like it's a reach. It's something that is a little bit farther than you expected.

The way you present these five choices is sequential. And you mentioned that they sort of feedback into each other. Can you talk about that a little bit more?

These five questions we often call them, it's a, a Playing to Win cascade because the Winning Aspiration kind of waterfalls into the Where to Play which Waterfalls into the How-to-Win. You're actually looking at those questions and asking yourself, well, how do they connect and reinforce with each other? These five questions need to be locked together.

Subscribe & Review in iTunes

Are you subscribed to the podcast? If you’re not, I want to encourage you to do that today. We have even more great interviews coming and I don’t want you to miss an episode. Click here to subscribe in iTunes!

Now if you’re feeling extra inspired, I would be really grateful if you left us a review over on iTunes, too. Those reviews help other people find our podcast. Just click here to review, select “Ratings and Reviews” and “Write a Review” and let me know what your favourite part of the podcast is. Thank you!

Also listen at:

iTunesGoogle MusicStitcher

Resources from this Episode

The Good Partnership Guide


I Think

Pivot Point Group

Kids Help Phone

The Small Nonprofit is produced by Eloisa Jane Mariano