Living in Cliché Land

| by Priscilla Bratcher

Have you ever felt your life is a cliché? If you’re like me, you know life can imitate clichés. Some of my most frequent include “too many irons in the fire”, “nutty as a fruitcake” (perfect for this time of year) or “sweeping [unpleasant things] under the carpet.” Stop me before I go over the cliff.

Here’s another one: “all over the map.”  I’ve been thinking about this because of the number of planning projects I’ve helped guide clients through this year. It’s been really gratifying to see planning committees come together grappling with indecision and chaos, move through a structured process, and finally coming to a newfound commitment to energetically embrace their work in smart, strategic ways. In other words, the more I work in in the area of strategic planning with all kinds and sizes of clients, the more I believe in taking the time to adopt a disciplined approach to creating an organization’s future.

Although planning bestows many benefits on an organization, one of the most surprising to clients can be that a strategic plan tells you not only what you are going to do, but almost more importantly, what you are not going to do. Yes, the planning process will call for difficult choices. Strategic planning is not a chance to put every board member or planning committee’s pet project into a document that sits on a shelf. I recently learned that a nonprofit paid $40,000 for a national consulting company to help develop a plan, produce a pretty binder, with colored graphs, charts, statements of goals and other motivational language that has not been cracked open in years. Today, that organization, having followed some of the plan’s early advice to invest unwisely, is down to one employee and facing bankruptcy.

I recently saw a “strategic plan” (quotes intentional) for a local nonprofit. As I read through it, it came to me: it’s all over the map. Its mission and vision statements were great, but when it came to values, I began to become concerned. I believe in articulating and really being able to live out no more than five guiding values. This plan had ten. Why is this too many? Guiding values are there to help organizations make difficult decisions. When faced with a choice, leaders can go back to the agreed-upon core values and weigh each option against those ideals. If you have ten, you might end up with numbers 1, 3, 6 and 7 in conflict. In that case, these words become pretty aspirations with no practical usefulness.

Despite my nervousness, I read on. Rather than three clear and simple strategic goals, they had six and below those 19 sub-strategies. Nineteen! Wow, I thought. They’ve gone beyond ambition and are now flirting with fantasy. What were they thinking?

But the most troubling part of this well-intentioned plan was that it stopped there. The 19 sub-strategies were not broken down into tasks, with accountabilities, success measures and deadlines. I wondered who was going to get all this work done, by when and how would the organization know when the job had been completed? To use a cliché, I felt the plan was all over the map. Their board and staff have a big vision and they want it all. They hadn’t made the tough decisions about what they wouldn’t or couldn’t do, at least not now.

It can be terrifically inspiring to staff, volunteers and donors to adopt a clearly articulated organizational direction but it must be underpinned with realistic, achievable and timely goals. There is probably nothing more dispiriting and de-motivating than a big vision that isn’t well supported with specifics and therefore is doomed to failure.

As I contemplate the hard work of the wonderful clients I’ve been privileged to work with in 2013, I urge us all to marry big vision with real tasks and timelines. Then put it into action. One of my favorite sayings, possibly a cliché, comes from a former colleague who loved strategic planning. As Mike used to say, “Plan the work then work the plan.”

Here’s to a wonderful 2014, filled with dreams and goals made possible by great planning.

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