The Value of Strategic Thinking: Always Be Prepared

by Natasha Dresner, Mentor, JCamp 180

I have some good friends who have two boys - an 8-year old and a 12-year old. The 8-year old, Josh, is an old soul, and the 12-year old, David, is a typical pre-teen. One day this past June, my friends went up to the boys' room to help them pack for camp, but stopped outside the door when they heard the following exchange:

"But what if it rains? Did you pack a raincoat?" Josh said. "And did you pack warm socks and clothes, in case it gets cold?"

David, in the meantime, was obeying orders like a good soldier running between different piles of things on the floor and bringing the right ones to his suitcase.

"Did you pack your special kipa?" Josh continued. "What for?" asked David, "They always have plenty of kipot for everyone at camp."

"That may be," Josh replied, "but if you want the girls to notice you, I'd bring your own."

"Girls!!!" said David, "What do you know about girls?!"

"More than you!" Josh snapped back mischievously.

Now, Josh may or may not know more about girls than his older brother, but he certainly knows more about strategic thinking. Listening to the story, I couldn't help but notice how applicable it is to our daily personal and professional lives and how much we can learn from this exchange. Not only because they are discussing going to a Jewish overnight camp(!), but because it's about the power of thinking strategically. Whether it's packing for camp, or "packing" for the short-term and long-term success of your nonprofit organization in these difficult economic times, thinking strategically has tremendous value. Our environment is constantly changing, so the best thing we can do for ourselves is to understand, accept, and respond to it by making strategic thinking a new "life style" of our organizations complemented by real-time, flexible strategic planning.

Strategic thinking is different from strategic planning, but they're interrelated and complementary. Some people think that it's a "chicken and egg" thing - in other words, that you can start with either and it'll promote the other. I believe that strategic thinking comes first - you focus on what matters most (e.g. performance, revenue sources, outside perception of the organization) and, via a meaningful dialogue among everyone in your organization, you then produce a high-level, bird's-eye view of your situation. This, in turn, logically leads you into the more nitty-gritty strategic planning process to figure out the details, sequences, measurable outcomes, etc. Good strategic thinking is guaranteed to provide valuable content, which a strategic plan alone might not. Practicing strategic thinking positions us well for being proactive: thinking (strategically) ahead to be ready to quickly respond to changes. Both concepts - strategic thinking and strategic planning - are critical for the success and competitiveness of your organization.

To me, strategic thinking is a tool and a skill to ask timely, thought-provoking, discussion-stimulating questions to help you be the best you can be and to be as prepared as you can for the unexpected. And, boy, have we had an "abundance" of the unexpected lately: Madoff, swine flu, recession, you name it! Based on what I heard from many of you at the recent Grinspoon conference, most of us have been extremely affected by the unexpected. Some did OK, and a few really well, but most not so well. We concluded that much of the success, or lack thereof, had to do with the presence or absence of strategic thinking.

So what can you do to learn and practice strategic thinking?

1) Think big and conceptually. Before asking a question, make sure it's open enough - you don't want to limit the discussion/thinking. By the same token, when answering/thinking through the question, don't lose sight of the bigger picture. This is where your strategic plan comes in - having it in front of you during these discussions helps you make an educated coherent decision (even if it means that something in your strategic plan needs to be changed as a result).

2) Ask strategic questions, and ask them strategically. In other words, phrase the questions carefully in a way that is inclusive (both in terms of people and subject matter) and that will promote a healthy discussion about the organization, not a negative, dead-end argument about an individual or personalities.

For example, if we ask "Where can we cut our expenses to make sure we have a balanced budget as our Executive Director doesn't seem to care/know what he is doing," the conversation is already focused on the E.D. only, on assigning blame, and on the expense side of the budget only. How well do you think that discussion will turn out? But, if instead we ask, "How can we maintain a balanced budget?" the discussion will be focused on both the expense and revenue sides of the budget, and invite everyone in the room to take responsibility for it instead of assigning blame and getting nowhere.

3) Incorporate strategic thinking into your agenda. Make it a stand-alone item on your Board agenda. Use a consent agenda to free up some time for these important strategic discussions. There are always strategic issues that need discussion. In turn, this will keep your Board from micromanaging, and help it to fulfill its fiduciary responsibility. Talk about the importance of strategic thinking in the Board room with your staff present, and then apply it.

4) Do it regularly, not once a year - it's the only way to make strategic thinking a habit.

5) Be proactive and ask the "What-if…" questions. For example, did we know exactly when the recession would happen and how hard it would hit? No. On the other hand, could we have been more prepared if we asked: What is our alternative financial model if we lose some of our core funding sources in the next year or two? Probably. This is strategic thinking.

6) Use a professional facilitator. A facilitator will help you learn different techniques to promote strategic thinking and robust discussions within your group. Sharing personal and organizational stories is a really powerful tool; collecting participants' thoughts in writing at the end of each meeting is great; establishing and agreeing on some ground rules also helps. There are many other tools and devices, but the key thing to remember is that in the beginning of each meeting you need to get your group to remember that they are on the same team in order to have a productive and meaningful discussion.

With all of this information "packed" in your suitcase, you are much more likely to be prepared for whatever comes your way. Just remember to unpack it and use it. The girls (and boys) will definitely notice!