Strategic planning is one of those seemingly boring things that we need to do every once in a while to have a vision and clarity around where our organization is going. But I've never seen it done as an exciting or innovative process in most small organizations.
In today’s episode, Jennifer Riel, IDEO’s global director of strategy (and probably one of the smartest people I’ve met), talks about how you can actually use that process to think about innovation and really have a strong impact on your organization.
Myths that Jennifer wants us to walk away from:
Strategy is about updating old plans: Doing the status quo may look risk-free, but it may be extremely risky because the world has changed, or we lack the capabilities, or whatever the case may be. Holding the same standard hinders us from seeing other possibilities that could lead us to where we want to be.
Strategy is all about budget and a thick binder full of initiatives. Strategy is a set of choices. And a choice means yes to some things and a no to other things, giving things up, trading things off. Real choices. And those choices are about how you are going to try to win in a particular way.
Jennifer’s thoughts around Strategy
“Winning” for nonprofits: Strategy is about making choices that will allow you to win and for nonprofits, winning means achieving ambitions and creating the change that we want to see in the world. Jennifer encourages not for profits to think of choices about what they can uniquely do and what should they uniquely do to create the change that they are after?
Start with human-centeredness: Understanding the context in which you are operating is important for nonprofits. You need to know what's happening in the community, what are the folks that you are working with, and what is it that is working for them or not? And use that to define the problem to be solved.
Competitive advantage: For nonprofits, the competitive advantage is a reason a donor would give you the dollar instead of someone else, a reason to believe that you can achieve the outcome you're after more effectively or less expensively than someone else could.
Knowing Your Capabilities: You need to know the capabilities and systems that you will need as an organization in order to implement your strategy. Be honest about where you are.
Favourite Quotes from Today’s Episode
Post your favorite quote on social media to share with us!
“And so the choice that I encourage, not for profits to think about, the heart of the choice is “what can we uniquely do?” What should we uniquely do to create the change that we're after?
There are many things we could do. There are many ways we could spend our time, but if we wanted to be the best steward of the resources given to us, the best user of the time and talents of the people who are working with us, what is that set of things? That we are going to choose to do. And what are we going to leave to others or find partners to do? Because if we do try to do everything, we will be very tired but also not very effective, ”
“The starting place is to use your existing understanding of the world, your collective wisdom as a leadership team to say what is the problem we need our new strategy to solve. Start there, then explore the possibilities. So don't try to get to that answer right away, diverge a little bit and explore different playing fields, different potential sources of advantage. Those are the two fundamental questions. “
Resources from this Episode
Cindy W.: So strategic planning is one of those kinds of seemingly boring things that, we need to do every once in a while so that we have some vision and clarity around where our organization is going. But I don't know, I've never seen it an exciting or innovative process in most small organizations. Usually, it's like a, oh no, we're due for a strategic plan, we gotta get this done really quickly.
And so today we're going to talk about how you can actually use that process to think about innovation and really having a strong impact with your organization and use it as a time to reflect and build and actually create an exciting future.
I'm your host, Cindy Wagman. And you're listening to The Small Nonprofit podcast where we bring you practical down-to-earth advice because you are going to change the world. And we're here to help
Today's podcast guest is Jennifer Rielle who I know because we used to work together at the Rotman School of Business at the University of Toronto. But now she is the global director of strategy at IDEO, which is an incredible globally renowned business design or design thinking firm. And Jen is truly one of the smartest people I know, but also one of the nicest. And so when I asked her to be on the podcast, I was so delighted that she said yes. So here's my interview with Jen.
Jennifer, welcome to the podcast.
Jennifer R.: Thank you so much. It's my pleasure to be here.
Cindy W.: It's my pleasure to have you because I've seen you in action and I know the work that you do having had the pleasure of working with you in the past. And so I'm really excited to bring your knowledge and expertise and experience to our audience. I know they're in for a treat.
And we're going to be telling you about strategic planning and building bringing in some of the core things that I would say you're known for like design thinking. But before we dive into that, I'd love to talk a little bit about why traditional strategic planning feels like such a chore.
Why is it just the kind of thing that most organizations in my experience, especially small ones are like, "oh my goodness, it's strategic planning time? Let's find a volunteer who can just get this done for us"? Why is it so hard?
Jennifer R.: I think strategic planning feels like such a chore because as practiced at most organizations, it is a chore just is. And I think there are a few reasons for that. I think one it's not really a very human-centered process as, as currently defined. It is about deadlines. And it is about looking at our old strategic plan and realizing we didn't do everything in the old strategic plan and then saying, okay are we just going to update this plan, or do we need to put new things in the plan?
And the strategic plan becomes a really long list of initiatives that isn't very exciting to people, and it becomes a process of negotiation. Like we can include my favorite initiative, you include your favorite initiative and then, it's really too much for us to do, but we don't actually want to make the hard choice to prioritize this or that.
So it is really punishing. It can be a really long process. It can be a process of interpersonal conflict when we disagree about the choices that we need to make. And often actually deep-seated existing conflicts surface during these conversations because you're talking about the future.
But I think when it really comes down to it, what really makes it hard is that. we don't have a shared useful definition of what a strategy is. And so we don't have a shared understanding of how to get to a good strategy. And so it's no surprise that conflict and deadlock and slow painful meetings can often be features of our experience of strategy. It's just a poorly designed experience as it is.
Cindy W.: Yeah. And I think you nailed it when you mentioned that also we often will look back at our old one and realize we haven't done any of this stuff. And if that's our experience with planning where it's not actually useful, there's no utility to it, other than going through this painful exercise, as you said, it's broken, right.
And so you mentioned we need a shared, useful definition. Have you come up with one or how can we think about it, is it this, is it a universal definition or does that a process that the organization undertakes to define for themselves?
Jennifer R.: I think Michael Porter came up with a pretty good definition. And if we listen to him we could do worse when he really gets down to it, when he really defines what strategy is he says, it's not a budget and it's not a really thick binder full of initiatives. It is a set of choices, real choices. So a choice means yes to some things and a no to other things, giving things up, trading things, of real choices. And those choices are about how you are going to try to win in a particular way.
And I recognize we're talking to folks in the nonprofit world, then say sometimes I see the word winning and people instantly have this very visceral, slightly horrified look on their face, but I actually think the word winning in a nonprofit context is even more meaningful because what is the win in that context?
Achieving that amazing world-changing thing that we have set out to do. There's so much purpose and meaning in the work of foundations and charities and other not-for-profit institutions. And, winning would be, achieving those ambitions and creating the change we want in the world. And the reality is if we try to be everything if we try to do everything, we're going to be mediocre because it's too much.
And it's even worse for, not for profits than for-profit companies, because there is no end to the list of good things, that need to be done in the world. And so the choice that I encourage, not for profits to think about the heart of the choice is what can we uniquely do? What should we uniquely do to create the change that we're after?
There are many things we could do. There are many ways we could spend our time, but if we wanted to be the best steward of the resources given to us, the best use of the time and talents of the people who are working with us, what is that set of things that we are going to choose to do. And what are we going to leave to others or find partners to do? Because if we do try to do everything, we will be very tired but also not very effective,
Cindy W.: can't say ever experienced that in a nonprofit. But it's so simple, but it's so hard, and I, that is the sort of paradox of, I think any of these strategic choices is it's easily summed up, but very difficult to practice. So let's talk a little bit about how do we, using this definition of strategy. First, we have to figure out what we actually want to uniquely do, is that the starting point or is there a different starting point?
Jennifer R.: I think there are many starting points, but I work for an organization called IDEO, which is a design thinking human-centered innovation organization. And so am aligned with their view that where you want to start is with real human beings and so the way that I think about it is you do need to understand the context in which you're operating. What's happening in my community. What are the folks that I'm working with and what is it that is working for them or not? What is it that they need to look internally at your organization? What's working, what's not working look outside to what others are doing in your landscape and use that to define the problem to be solved. So if the only reason you are doing a strategy, is because your governance board told you that you have to have a strategy.
The only reason to have a strategy that is different from the last one is if there is something that isn't working some gulf, between what you want to accomplish and what you are accomplishing, some way in which you have not achieved those ambitions or those goals. And that could be that you're poorly aligned with the needs of the folks you want to serve. It could be that you're missing some capabilities that would enable you to do this. It could be that the world has changed. It's true.
Cindy W.: That's the world
Jennifer R.: In many dramatic ways. And so that's, the starting place is to use your existing understanding of the world, your collective wisdom as a leadership team to say, what is the problem we need our new strategy to solve. Start there, then explore the possibilities. So don't try to get to that answer right away, diverge a little bit and explore, different playing fields, different potential sources of advantage. Those are the two fundamental questions.
So your playing field is who we serve and what do we offer them? And what are our geographic choices and what are we going to do ourselves? And what are we going to partner or leave to others to do? That's your playing field, right? The sandbox that you choose to operate in. You can look at your existing sandbox instead of exploring the possibilities of being narrower or broader, or it's adjacent.
And for each of those playing fields, you want to be able to say, what is the unique value we would create? What is the reason to believe that we can have what again, Michael Porter called competitive advantage and is not for profit context, the competitive advantage is a reason a donor would give you the dollar instead of someone else, a reason to believe that you can, in some way, achieve the outcome you're after more effectively or less expensively than someone else could, that's the thing you're after if you want to be sustainable.
And so you want to explore different possibilities for the future. And as you do that, as you sketch them out and get excited to actually build them together and describe them and tell stories about them.
What if our future looks like this? What if our future looked like that? What if it looked this other way, then you have the moment where you can stop and step back and look at those and ask a different question than we normally do. So the question we normally ask is which of those possibilities is the right answer. And then what happens?
Cindy W.: Then we all disagree.
Jennifer R.: Exactly. We're going to argue. Cause I think one is the right answer and Cindy you think a different one is a right answer. And instead of asking that we look at all of the possibilities and we say for each one, what would have to be true for that possibility to be our new strategy, to be a really winning, powerful strategy.
And this is a question introduced to me, is it my way of working from my mentor? Roger Martin, the former Dean at the Rotman School of Management, where were Cindy and I met and worked together. The most powerful question you can ask when making any decision.
Cindy W.: I use that question that I learned from working with you. I think it is absolutely brilliant. And so thank you, Roger. For sharing that with us 'cause yeah. And it ties into one of the questions I had as you were talking, which is sometimes we don't know what we don't know, or we understand our reality and we get so comfortable in it that thinking beyond even as you talk about all these choices that we can make, where we want to play, we, our routine, our habits is to stay safe, in fact, our brains are designed that way. They want to stay safe. How can we push ourselves? And maybe this question is a tool to do that, to see other things as an option, like an actual cause I think it's really hard for all of us to think about letting go, moving on, doing things differently. And so we can strain our choices off the bat. How do we go a little bit bigger?
Jennifer R.: I should start by saying one of the possibilities you should always consider explicitly is something that looks an awful lot, like the status quo or what we're doing today. And that is because whether you do it explicitly or not, it's always there.
Always have it as the default and they hold it to a much lower bar, right? It's riskless we can always just keep doing what we're doing when in fact you might be incredibly risky because the world has changed or we don't have the capabilities or whatever it might be. And so you want to hold it to the same standard, but you want to create a set of possibilities that are relatively broad.
The thing you're striving for is a few that are closer to where you are today that feel hard, but doable. We could imagine that happening. And then you do want to use inspiration from the world, inspiration from your users, inspiration from analogous organizations or different industries, to think about much bolder, much bigger, a much further out.
Ways of thinking about this. And so you might push yourself to say if a for-profit organization we're trying to solve this, how would they do it differently? Like I'm not the world's largest Elon Musk fan, but it is interesting to see the way in which SpaceX all over it's different than NASA did better in some ways, maybe not at all, but it is a very different model, how you get to space.
And so thinking about, if Google were trying to solve this problem, what would they do if Walmart were trying to solve this problem, what would they do? Because those are proxies to make you push about push, to think about technology or scale or cost. And so you want to create that set it is broader and some of which make you nervous.
And then the question of what would have to be true, isn't about saying, is this a good idea or a bad idea, but rather what would have to be true for this to be a great idea. And then you can go into the world and determine, to what extent do things are true, to what extent those things would be true how you could make them true. All of those really important design questions.
Cindy W.: Let's talk a little bit more about that because what would have to be true is a huge question. And can we bucket some examples of resources human capital, what are some considerations as we think about what would need to be true to help us scope that that question or answer.
Jennifer R.: So it will always be a little bit dependent on your particular context. If we're talking about you working at a hospital versus a tiny startup nonprofit versus a large foundation, they'll be slightly different, but you can think of large buckets. There are things that would have to be true about your industry the context in which you operate, those are things like regulation and the general state of that industry.
We know for instance, that charitable giving in Canada looks really different than charitable giving in the United States. And so you would, if you, one of the things you were considering was moving from a base in Canada to a base in the United States or vice versa, you would have some things that would have to be true about the dynamics in those different regions.
You also would have a set of things that would have to be true about your customer slash users slash beneficiary slash donor. Like the people who you serve, the people with whom you work, whatever word you use to describe that group of people. We often use user because and recognize that there may be different lines.
There are donors and beneficiaries, or there are different ways of thinking about it, but what would have to be true about them, what they need and value what they need in value now versus what they're going to need and value in the future, what they're capable of doing what they recognize as necessary, all of those things.
Then there are things that would have to be true about you as an organization. Your cost base your capabilities the systems that are required or would need to be in place for the strategy to work. And then finally, there's another word that may feel very uncomfortable for not-for-profit world competition.
You used the word competition. Sometimes they use that word and sometimes we'll say we're not for profit. We don't have competition. And that is true in some sense, other than you are competing for donor dollars or governmental funds and you are competing for talent and you are, you're not trying to drive anyone out of the sector. You're not trying to put anyone out of business as war, but there is a sense in which you are competing for the ability to accomplish the things you want to accomplish. And so you want to understand what would have to be true about the reaction of other organizations in your sphere. That one is really important when we were talking about for-profit companies, it's probably a little less important here.
And so you might even reframe it and say, it's not about competition. It's about our partners. What's going to have to be true about our partner organizations and what they're capable and willing to do or what we would need them to pick up if we didn't do this. So you can define, somewhere in and amongst those four big buckets, which are the ones that are most relevant or most important.
And start to think about, for each of those categories, what are the things that, that really would have to be true for you to choose possibility A or possibly B or possibility C
Cindy W.: Amazing, so now we have these choices in front of us and we've laid out the possibilities of or the, the requirements to actually make them viable for us. What next?
Jennifer R.: So as you look at all of the things that would have to be true, there's a little moment where you do a gut check and say, which are the things that I put in here, cause they'd be nice to have. And which are the things that really truly out absolutely would have to be true. If this isn't true, we are not choosing this possibility.
It's a much shorter list. There are likely to be lots and lots of nice to have and a very short list of the things that are absolutely critical as someone referred to them at IDEO referred to them as kryptonite conditions, right? This kills the possibility, even if it's a superhero, the possibility kryptonite will kill it.
And so you want to identify that small, a lot of things for each possibility. That absolutely has to be true. And we're just not sure if it is right. There might be something that would have to be true.
It would have to be true that donors would find this to be an attractive proposition, that really matters, but you might already know enough about your donor base to have enough confidence. Like actually they would love this. They have been asking for this. I don't have to go and learn any more or tests because I'm confident already what you want to do is identify those things that are really critical and where you just simply do not have enough confidence yet to believe that they are true, then you can say, all right let's get to the testing.
How could we test and learn? Who do we need to talk to you? What experiment do we need to run? What analysis do we need to look at? What quick spreadsheet do we need to build? What sketch do we need you to draw in order to get us to a level of confidence where we could place a bet on this possibility?
And I use that language very intentionally. You will never ever know for certain, it's impossible to know for certain that this is the right direction, because you're looking at the future. You can't know because the future hasn't happened yet. And so you absolutely want to get to a place of confidence to take action. And that's what the tests are intended to do.
Cindy W.: I love that. Cause yeah, there's always going to be a question mark or something, especially I think again like we're going to be looking for those outs because sometimes this is uncomfortable. It's again, anytime there's change, we don't like change. We don't want to do that.
So it's really, w when it's easy to say, oh, I don't know enough. That's one of our brain's mechanisms to just avoid decisions. So I think that we can never know enough or we can never know everything, but we can know enough to move forward. So now we probably have to start making some decisions how do we, do we have a measuring stick, so to speak or a yardstick to say, okay, this measures up to what we want and this doesn't, or, we talked about the human dynamics of decision-making as well. So how do we balance all those things?
Jennifer R.: Yeah. So I think it's important before you run your tests to share an agreement on what success and failure are. So for this first to of deem that we've passed this test, it would have to be true that of the 10 people we talked to four express enthusiasm or eight you need to know that before the conversation not after. Cause otherwise, you're going to argue about whether you pass the test or not. So you want to be able to do that.
And then honestly once you've run the tests and you start to look at the outcomes, you will, there are very few guarantees in life, but I can guarantee that it will not be immediately completely in a hundred percent unambiguous, right? It will never be one possibility to pass every test with a hundred percent success and all the other possibilities failed. And so now we know what to choose and we're going to move forward. There will always be a conversation between the leadership team where you discern, where you say, given what we've learned as we look holistically across the set, is there one that we feel comfortable moving forward with?
Is there one that is the core of our strategy? and a couple of elements that we don't want to lose from the others that we want to think about, whether we can bring them in without trying to do everything for everyone, a component of these other possibilities?
And then as you do that, as you start to say, this is the choice we believe we want to make, you want to be very intentional about saying, okay what really are the capabilities and systems that we will need as an organization?
And let's be honest, about where we are. Do we not have them at all and not really know how to get them? Do we have them, but not at the level required? Or do we have them at the level of excellence that is required? And in each of those conditions, you would have to say, okay, if we don't have them and we're not sure how to get them, let's start on that journey who owns this responsibility.
Who's going to figure it out off you go. If we've got the capability, but not at the level required what's our path. Is this an investment and resourcing question? Is it a talent development and learning question, who needs to take accountability for getting us from where we are to where we need to be on this capability?
And if you're in the happy situation where you have the capability at the level required, who is going to be responsible for making sure it stays that way who owns this capability has oversight of it. And what is our plan as a leadership team? To continue having a strategy conversation over the length of a three-year plan.
So we're not going to have it and come back in three years and look at whether we achieved it. Strategy is a living thing. It is a social process. And so what you want to be able to do is say, okay, what is our strategic cadence? When are we checking in on how the strategy is going? Whether we're achieving our ambitions, to what extent our capabilities and systems are being built at the level required.
What does that conversation look like? Is it every week at our Monday meeting? Is it. Every quarter at a strategic offsite, is it X, Y, or Zed? Hopefully not. We'll come back in three years and see how we did it from not a great solution.
Cindy W.: I literally was going to ask about how do we make this living a living ongoing experience in our organization. So you already answered my question, but I do want to come back to or circle back to, you mentioned right off the bat, human-centered. And I think that sometimes, people gloss over that piece of it. Because in some ways you've given us a very clear process which is super helpful.
And so sometimes in my experience with people in organizations, we just like to dive into the process. We're like, okay step steps. We make these decisions around the board table or management table. And we're good. And I think that in my experience, again, working with you and others.
That human-centeredness needs to show up more than just at that beginning stage or in consideration. So how can we weave that into the process and check in on ourselves that we don't lose sight of that? Because again, there's so much just seen this over and over again around the table where it almost becomes like. This little, things just happen in isolation from the people we work with.