Kevin Schulman is founder and managing partner of DonorVoice, a company helps non-profits increase retention and donor loyalty with an empirical, proven process to evaluate which communications, messages, events and donor service interactions cause lifetime value and by extension, those that don’t. In short, they put the “donor” in donor-centric strategy and prove the value of this approach in the only way that matters – in-market testing.
Kevin developed the DonorVoice model, framework and product line in the commercial sector as an expert in relationship theory, loyalty and linking attitudinal data with transactional.
Strategy Starts Where Your Comfort Level Ends
But, alas this is not how strategy is typically done. To start, we turn “strategy” the noun into an adjective (strategic) modifying “plan” or “planning”. This fateful, unintentional decision likely dooms any real strategy emerging. Instead, we end with a long, tedious document and an Excel file.
The Excel document is some form of a budget that tries to attach the same precision to the revenue (i.e. DEMAND) side of the equation as the cost (SUPPLY) side. The latter is 100% manageable by the organization, the former is not even close. And yet, we go through this long, tedious drill of perfectly forecasting and budgeting for revenue by program and department to match the equally precise cost estimates.
At the end of this many months long process – that we faithfully repeat year after year – we all feel good, comfortable and confident with detailed documents and excel budgeting to support that feeling.
The larger the spreadsheets, the more confident an organization is in its process. All those numbers and data feel analytical, scientific even.
So why do managers and those on the front lines responsible for executing the “strategy” tend to dread the annual strategic planning ritual? Why does it consume so much time and have so little impact on organizational actions? The reason; those people responsible for delivering on the plan recognize the process as it exists today does not produce novel strategies.
Instead, it perpetuates the status quo.
But, if the alternative is ideation sessions and off-sites to come up with radical, big new ideas then these same manager and directors make the right choice in sticking with the process that at least produces some short term comfort versus the 1 day of talking with no action.
The short term comfort (along with a certain amount of resignation) lasts until the returns start coming in and we see – to nobody’s actual surprise – that revenue is not as predictable as Excel would lead us to believe – though the costs are dead on.
So what is the alternative? How do we get back to real strategy? For starters, here are a few defining thoughts.
- Strategy is about forcing a choice, stating what we are and are not doing.
- It is about making assumptions and explicit choices and outlining both – BRIEFLY – in 1 page, 2 max.
- If your strategy document is more than 2 pages then there is a 99.9% it isn’t a strategy at all. It is a planning and forecasting and prognosticating exercise to deliver short term comfort. It is also almost certainly a document that looks radically similar to last year.
- A strategy is clear, concise and focused. Just like good copy.
- Strategy is about making small bets with the explicit choices made and not made and the associated assumptions spelled out.
- With a solid articulation of the 2 (or 3 max) choices available to solve a problem (e.g. falling retention rates, lousy uptake with monthly giving offer) or achieve a goal and equally solid articulation of the assumptions that must be true for either choice to work then we increase our chance of success.
- Evaluate those assumptions and determine which set best fits with what you do well, is most likely to be true and then make a choice. This will greatly increase chances of success.
- Increasing our chance of success is not the same as reducing risk
- It is about turning left or right and not believing we can do both at the same time.
- It is about monitoring performance of the small bet and modifying course or abandoning it all together.
- Contrary to popular wisdom, strategy is not about failing a whole lot first. That is called failing.
- If there is no risk, there is no strategy. If you feel comfortable, there is no a strategy