The Best Made Plans: On Crafting Strategy

Strategic planning – most of us do it. Boards know it’s an important part of their direction-setting role. But how do we ensure we create the “best made plans”?

Organizational direction needs to be informed by ongoing strategic thinking and environmental scanning. Organizations operate in an environment characterized by VUCA: volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (Bennett and Lemoine, 2014). In such an environment, more practitioners and academics question the value of formal strategic plans that are the most common expression of an organization’s ‘intended’ or ‘deliberate’ strategy (Mintzberg and Waters, 1985).

Although it is impossible to predict the future in a VUCA environment, being intentional in articulating the change an organization wants to make in society remains important, particularly when that change may be a long time coming. Planning timeframes have shifted over the years from 10-year plans, to 3 or 5-year plans. More recently, the pendulum seems to be swinging back with organizations examining what’s on the horizon 10-20 years out. Shorter-term plans identify the milestones en route to the more distant horizon.

Regardless of a plan’s timeframe, most boards recognize that checking in on progress (i.e. on the ‘deliberate’ strategies) and on shifts in the broader environment annually or semi-annually is key to identifying any ‘emergent’ strategies. An organization’s ‘realized’ strategy consists of a combination of the deliberate and emergent strategies that were ultimately implemented (Mintzberg, Ahlstrand and Lampel, 1998).

Visualization of strategies deliberate and emergent (ibid p. 12)

Visualization of strategies Mintzberg Ahlstrand and LampelDeveloping Strategy

Intended and deliberate strategy is generally crafted in one of two ways – driven by the bold vision of a charismatic leader with a dream (think L’Arche Canada’s founder, Jean Vanier), or by an analytic approach, informed by the organization’s vision, data and evidence (e.g. socio-demographic shifts in the population). With an analytic approach the board might play a more active role analyzing relevant data to shape the vision and corresponding strategies. In both cases, ensuring goals and activities are aligned with the overarching vision and mission of the organization is crucial, along with ensuring human and financial resources are available to do the work.

Diverse boardThe right people and relevant information are key inputs to strategy development. Jim Collins (2001), emphasizes the importance of “getting the right people on the bus”… or in this case, engaging the right people in strategy development. Even a highly skilled, diverse board cannot develop strategy alonestrategy must be informed by the experiences and perspectives of other organizational stakeholders such as staff, clients, partners and funders. Representative stakeholders are often consulted as part of an environmental scanning process, and are sometimes invited to co-design strategy with the board. Engaging organizational stakeholders in strategy development can build buy-in and support for implementation of strategic directions.

Tools to inform, craft and adapt strategy 

Quality information is a critical starting point for strategy development. Gathering relevant information about the internal and external environment helps establish a common platform from which board and management can consider pathways to the future. Information gathering often focuses on internal data and sector-related reports along with stakeholder consultation processes. Information gathered may be synthesized in the form of SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats), SOAR (strengths, opportunities, aspirations and results) or PESTEL (political, economic, socio-demographic, technological, environmental and legal) analyses.

These kinds of analyses help an organization uncover key issues, as well as opportunities and challenges. Organizations usually aim for 3-5 strategic priorities and directions to acheive their mission and respond to major issues and opportunities. Any more than that and organizational energy will be diffused. Regardless of the number, all strategies must be aligned with an organization’s vision and mission. Organizations need to ensure their strategies address a balance of internal and external opportunities and challenges.


What critical conversations and questions will help boards craft, communicate and monitor organizational strategy? The sample questions below relate to organizations at various points in the strategy development process. Many boards have a strategic plan in place and are focused on monitoring and adapting that strategy, while others are developing a new or updated strategic plan.

Fiduciary (oversight) Strategic (insight) Generative (foresight)
  • When were our Vision, Mission and Values last reviewed and updated? Do they need to be revised?
  • Alignment – are our strategies leading us to the achievement of our vision?
  • How will we resource our strategy – e.g. different revenue streams, re-allocation of existing resources?
  • Do our current priorities remain relevant in the changing environment? Why or why not?
  • How might we do things differently to achieve greater impact? E.g. if we stopped doing X, what might we be able to do instead?
  • What strategies are emerging within the work we’re doing now?
  • What assumptions do we hold about the way we do our work… does anything suggest that these assumptions are no longer true?
  • What patterns are we seeing in the sector… and how might those patterns affect how we work and/or those we serve?
  • What ‘strange bedfellows’ could bring new ideas to our thinking and work?

Strategic ThinkingStrategic Thinking as a Practice

Strategic thinking feeds strategy development. Effective boards not only have the skills and capacity to think strategically, but make it a regular practice to do so. Critical conversations are one way to embed the practice into board meetings.

In the book Strategy Safari, Mintzberg, Ahlstrand and Lampel (1998, p. 128) frame strategic thinking as ‘seeing’:

  • Ahead: looking for what is emerging
  • Behind: understanding the historical context
  • Strategic thinking as seeingAbove: taking the ‘balcony’ or ‘10,000 foot’ view
  • Below: seeking what’s sprouting on the ground
  • Beside: removing blinders masking the broader system
  • Beyond: speculating about what’s on the distant horizon
  • Through: taking action on what you’ve seen and thought

When developing strategy, seeing in all these directions generates new insights, surfaces new opportunities and helps boards anticipate and mitigate risks of their best made plans.

Sandi Trillo and Ruth Armstrong

Recommended resources and references

“20 questions directors of not-for-profit organizations should ask about strategy and planning”. Hugh Lindsay, Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants, 2008

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… And Others Don’t. Jim Collins, Harper Business, 2001

“Lofty missions, down to earth plans”, V. Kasturi Rangan, Harvard Business Review, March 2004

Moments of Impact: How to Design Strategic Conversations That Accelerate Change. Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon, Simon & Schuster, 2014

“Of strategies, deliberate and emergent”. Henry Mintzberg and James A. Waters, Strategic Management Journal, Vol. 6, 1985, pp. 257-272

“Off the shelf – How to ensure that your strategic plan becomes a valued tool”. Michael Burns, Brody, Weiser, Burns, Undated

Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works. A.G. Lafly and Roger L. Martin, Harvard Business Review Press, 2013

Strategy Safari. Henry Mintzberg, Bruce Ahlstrand and Joseph Lampel, The Free Press, 1998.

“Strategic planning that makes a difference and that’s worth the time”. Susan Gross, Management Assistance Group, 2007

The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution: Real-Time Strategic Planning in a Rapid-Response World. David La Piana, Fieldstone Alliance, 2008

The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning. Henry Mintzberg, The Free Press, 1994

“What VUCA really means for you”. Nathan Bennett and G. James Lemoine, Harvard Business Review, January-February 2014

EnviroScan21 – The Toronto Supportive Housing Sector Experience

If you’re a thought leader in your sector, chances are you receive regular invitations to complete surveys, participate in interviews and focus groups. There’s a lot of consultation going on… but when it comes to scanning the external environment, many non-profit organizations need and seek the same kind of information.

There’s no doubt that understanding what’s going on in the environment is an important aspect of strategic planning; but is there a better way for stakeholders to understand the system they operate in? Individual agencies generally analyze external forces through internal discussions about their findings. How can we break out of these agency silos to better understand the rest of the system?

In our consulting practice, we assist organizations in scanning their internal and external environments as part of a strategic planning process. This common quest for data and system understanding represents an opportunity for organizations to get smarter together.

Scanning Our EnvironmentsMany PESTEL (see diagram above) forces in the external environment affect every non-profit organization to some degree, while some impact only those working in a particular sector, or with a particular population. Historically, and with permission, we’ve shared such findings across agencies working in the same sector. Recently we experienced a more efficient and effective approach.

NetworkTreeIn the fall of 2013 we facilitated an environmental scanning process for 21 Toronto area supportive housing agencies. The process was collaborative, efficient and led to the identification of four areas of collective action for their 29 member Network – the Toronto Mental Health and Addictions Supportive Housing Network (the Network). Network members have a long history of working on collaborative initiatives; this process gave them an opportunity to share knowledge and collectively make sense of their common challenges and opportunities within a shared and evolving system.

The supportive housing sector receives funding from a variety of sources and staying up-to-date with funders’ changing expectations, along with the changing needs of tenants/clients and staff requires significant effort. It’s almost impossible for any one leader or organization to stay on top of all the trends, forces and new research, even if leaders are involved in sector initiatives and diligently scan the external environment on an ongoing basis. As part of the scanning process, we surveyed Network members, consumer groups, funders, and private landlords to learn more about their perspectives on the supportive housing system and the changing needs of tenants/clients.

The sector scan process benefitted from the knowledge and insights of the 21 partner agencies and their Executive Directors (ED). EDs shared key reports and recent research that has informed their organization’s work. These documents were posted to an online repository that all partners can access at their convenience. We analyzed the content of the reports and survey data, and distilled the findings in an Environmental Scan Report.

Partner agency representatives met for a half-day strategic thinking session to explore the findings presented in the Report. Participants added to, and challenged some of the findings, and discussed the implications for the supportive housing sector and those they support. The discussion concluded with the identification of four areas for collective action. Leads for each area agreed to convene action groups to move the four initiatives forward.

StrategicThinkingAt the strategic thinking session participants commented that the collaborative process helped the group focus on the system as a whole. The collective action will reinvigorate the Network by giving it new direction. The Report will be of interest within and beyond each organization. Elements will be shared with a variety of external audiences. Ideally the Scan will serve as a common platform for supportive housing agency strategic planning processes and lead to an ongoing exchange of information and dialogue among Network members. Participants thought an annual strategic thinking session for the Network would be valuable.

We were thrilled to be part of the process and would like to thank the Project Oversight Group members that we collaborated with to co-design and implement the process. We think the process will enhance the supportive housing sector’s ability to respond collectively and creatively to the forces driving change and ultimately deliver better outcomes for those they support. It significantly reduced duplication of effort – for agencies and those consulted.

Q4L-EnviroScan21Although we recognize this process benefitted from the Network’s historical working relationships, we think it could be replicated in other sectors with less developed collaborative relationships or networks. It’s an ideal way to experiment with collaboration and build trust within a sector.

Interested? Let’s talk!

Ruth Armstrong and Sandi Trillo, VISION Management Services


Sharing the Plan – Communication Innovation at Durham Children’s Aid Society

As part of our planning processes we encourage clients to invest some energy into attending to communication throughout the process. Doing so helps ensure that staff, clients and funders are aware of the importance placed on planning, how the process will unfold, and opportunities to participate. We find this helps generate interest in and commitment to the final plan.

Durham Children’s Aid Society recognized the importance of communications and used technology creatively to keep staff up to date and engaged throughout the process. As strategic priorities were being developed, it became clear that innovation would be a priority and that part of this involved greater and different use of technology. Durham’s Executive Director, Wanda Secord, with support from her communications manager, anchored a brief newscast (think CBC’s ‘The Journal’), to thank staff for their contributions, update them on progress in the plan and introduce Durham’s preliminary strategic priorities. It was a great way to reach all staff in a way that was fresh, informative and entertaining (bloopers were included).

Wanda could have circulated the information in an email, or presented to staff at different team meetings. But communicating via video sent a clear message about the organization’s commitment to innovation and doing differently. Staff got the message… provided feedback and encouraged more of the same. Wanda followed up with a second newscast after the plan had been approved by the board.

Ruth and Sandi


  • How could you use new and low cost technologies to share your plan and/or keep it alive throughout the year?
  • How effectively are your organization’s and the Board’s communications aligned with your audience’s preferences?