Clare Bamberger

Jan 20, 2022, 1:00 PM

Structure your strategic ambition in a well-monitored action plan

“A man’s reach must exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”

Robert Browning 
An artist reflects on his life and how staying tame does not serve the bigger purpose.

Not usually one for poetry, I find myself thinking of this line from Robert Browning’s poem Andrea del Sarto, studied at A level (all those years ago!) as I start to write this piece on strategic planning, re-wording it:

“A plan’s reach must exceed its boundaries or what’s a strategy for?”

Well, what is a strategy for?

An organisational strategy sets the direction and ambition for the future N years. On a spectrum of “same as usual” right through to “complete change of our way to meet our charitable purpose”, most probably fall somewhere in the middle.

How often have you seen leaders excitedly consulting on, writing and unveiling with fanfare a shiny new strategy for the whole organisation? It’s a pretty thrilling moment – I’ve been there!

Once the elation is over, there are three important questions for the executive and trustee board:

1.     Can we do it? 
2.     Can our people do it? 
3.     How do we know if it’s working? 

Q1. Can the strategy be implemented and made reality? 

A strategy is not enough. There needs to be an overall, resourced plan that sets out the practical steps. Call it what you will: business plan, corporate plan, strategic plan, operational plan, operating model… without one a strategy is no more than a series of high-level goals without a way to deliver them.

For example, a new strategy might redefine the beneficiary groups but, without an overall business plan, your fundraising, policy and service delivery teams all interpret this in different ways and their business plans do not match up. Plans to invest in support systems such as databases or the Finance department do not serve the new direction.

At one organisation I witnessed the fragmentation of action that having no implementation plan can bring, along with the frustration of teams who wanted to do the right thing but weren’t sure what that wasThe strategy was a 5-8-year one. Without an overall business plan setting realistic objectives each year, leading to achieving the goals over time, there was conflict over what to prioritise. Each department set their own priorities because the lofty objectives were interpreted locally, without tying together what the collective effort would achieve.

The result was a disparate set of departmental plans which, while ambitious for that area, could not be shown to deliver the strategic goals. In addition, departmental plans did not meet the needs of the other teams particularly well. Communications plans, for example, could not meet the needs of fundraising, policy and programmes because they were all taking off in different directions. 

Things improved markedly once a corporate plan was introduced a couple of years later.

Plans are there to set objectives, not to tell people how to do their jobs.

On the other hand, I’ve also seen how the straitjacket of a too detailed delivery plan restricts people’s ability to act and react: the time and energy spent on constant justification of what you’re doing and reporting minutiae; lack of agility to respond to changing situations, often accompanied by initiative being undervalued and opportunities missed. 

Even the most laced-up organisations have adapted their strategy and plans to Covid and will need to adapt again to a “living with Covid” world. 

Successful strategies will be accompanied by a unifying plan with which teams and departments can align their own.

Most important of all, all plans and strategies are living documents – not to be put on a shelf and forgotten about.

The strategy and business plan guide what your whole organisation does, for whom, how and how much of it.

When embedded well they are not a dry, unloved, top-down imposed set of rules but an inspiration and clear direction for everyone to plan and demonstrate how their work contributes to reaching the goals. Which leads neatly on to the second question.

Q2. Do our staff and volunteers understand how their role contributes? 

All sorts of jargon pops up here: “clear line of sight”, “performance framework” and other “accountability mechanisms”. 

In plain English they actually mean that all the people in the organisation, paid and unpaid, can see the point of what they do day-to-day. Sometimes staff members are not interested – and that’s their choice; they come to do their job to earn a living. Others feel more aligned with the cause and passionate about whether their efforts are making a difference.

A plan’s reach must exceed its boundaries

Under a unifying plan, each team can work out for themselves the best way to deliver on the objectives. After all, they have been hired for their knowledge and expertise, so trust them to use it.

Objectives will be agreed by line managers with individuals, by sections heads with team leaders, heads with department directors; preferably coordinated by someone who has the specific task of pulling it all into a coherent whole.

It’s the role of the staff themselves, managers and senior staff from each part of the organisation to monitor and report on progress towards objectives. The leaders can be held accountable up the chain ultimately to the board of trustees – another neat segue into the final question of how do you know if you’re succeeding?

Q3. Can we measure how we’re progressing and whether it’s delivering what we expected?

We’ve seen the benefits of having a delivery plan that makes sense of a strategy. We’ve also seen the benefits of enabling people to see how their work is contributing. But how do you know whether the plans are the right ones?

This is a hot topic covered by multiple experts with wide-ranging experience, books, theories and practical advice. Picking what’s right for your organisation goes to the heart of what you do and why.

What matters to you? What is success?

Working out whether your plans are exceeding your reach 

By having a unifying plan you already make monitoring progress against the strategy possible; if you didn’t there would be different interpretations of success. A classic way is to take the objectives of the overall plan and turn them into intended outcomes. From the outcomes you will find indicators, with data to populate them regularly for reports that can help you see where you’re doing well, not so well or simply not doing.

Good reports are gold dust

Properly analysed, their combined wealth of data will also tell you if you are delivering on the goals of the strategy. Properly used they tell you how you’re doing against the business plans and enable better decision making, guide any change of emphasis needed, direct investment and divestment, increase or decrease an activity and look at resourcing.

Only spend energy and time on reporting what’s meaningful. If the reports are not doing that for you, change them or stop them so you target resources towards reports on what matters to you.

Be realistic, though. What those reports won’t tell you is whether the strategy is having the impact you intended. But impact measuring is a whole other topic.

Browning was giving us a universal truth about the place of ambition and effort towards achieving something.

For an organisation, a plan structures the ambition, giving meaning to every effort its people make in reaching for those strategic goals.

Do you need help constructing a workable action plan? Please call 01737 814758 or email office@actionplanning.co.uk

Andrew Johnson

Clare Bamberger enables organisations to strengthen their culture, relationships and practices to adapt in a world where change is a constant. Her experience in successfully setting up and embedding new services within organisations has served charities and public sector bodies well. She plans and steers a path with the different stakeholders, making sure that the cause and mission of the organisation is the driving force.