What Makes You Strategic?

As someone who has helped nonprofit organizations to do strategic planning for 35 years, I find it painful that some organizations can be so non-strategic.  Much of what is called strategic planning by nonprofits is merely long range planning, and a truly strategic thinker would look long and hard through many nonprofit organizational plans to find hints of what I would personally consider to be strategic.
Perhaps much of the problem relates to semantics, and that’s why visiting the dictionary might be helpful.  Dictionary.com lists the following definitions of “strategic”:
  • pertaining to, characterized by, or of the nature of strategy: strategic  movements.
  • important in or essential to strategy.
  • (of an action, as a military operation or a move in a game) forming an integral part of a stratagem: a strategic move in a game of chess.
  • Military .
  • intended to render the enemy incapable of making war, as by  the destruction of materials, factories, etc.: a strategic bombing mission.
  • essential to the conduct of a war: Copper is a strategic material.
  • a plan, method, or series of maneuvers or stratagems for  obtaining a specific goal or result: a strategy for getting ahead   in the world.
Unless you find the military definitions helpful, the first three definitions would be practically meaningful only in light of an already articulated strategy.  But at the risk of being ponderous, what makes a strategy strategic?
For example, one old definition of strategy I recall is “the fundamental logic by which one accomplishes an objective.”  Fair enough.  But that’s a
process definition devoid of any meaningful content.
As succinctly as I know how to put it, what makes something truly strategic is the right
criteria.  Or, more practically and specifically in terms of ministry leadership and nonprofit management, having the right criteria for strategic choice.
In other words, meeting these criteria, once defined, would make something (e.g., an activity, a project, an initiative) strategic; failing to meet the criteria would indicate that whatever else its value might be, it hasn’t earned the right to fly under the “strategic” flag
Because strategic criteria are contextual (or “domain variant,” if you want to sound scholarly), this means that what is strategic for one organization is likely to be nonstrategic or counterstrategic to others.  But are there broad, if not universal, criteria that would help nonprofit organizations to improve their strategic IQ and in fact be more strategic?  I think so.  And with no pretense of being thorough, let alone exhaustive, here’s a list you might consider as starters:
  • Does the activity (current or proposed program, project, initiative) transparently link to or derive from the organization’s mission and vision?
  • More specifically, can a clear line of sight be established by way of linkage with the organization’s Key Result Areas (KRAs) and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)?
  • Does the opportunity take advantage of a strength or distinctive competency the organization possesses?
  • Correspondingly, does it avoid a dependence on something that is a weakness of the organization?
  • Does it demonstrably add value to key organizational stakeholders, thus likely strengthening their engagement?
  • Does it leverage limited organizational resources?  (That is, does it get good or improved “bang for the buck,” amplify the return on time and talent invested, etc.?)
  • Does it offer the opportunity to enhance organizational brand equity or attain a comparative advantage in the marketplace?
  • Does it contribute to the internal consistency of existing strategies? (That is, does it align in a complementary or synergistic way with existing strategies or is it tangential, possibly indicating a wild goose chase?)
  • Is the level of risk acceptable?
  • Is it consistent with established policy guidelines?
Obviously, you can add to this list, but if we were playing poker, I’d contend it’s “good for openers.”
D.L. Moody (not sure whether he played poker or not), once said, “The best way to determine whether a stick is crooked is not to debate its crookedness but to lay it down next to one that’s straight.”  Following that eminently sound counsel, the best way to determine whether something is strategic is not to debate how strategic it is, but to lay it down next to explicit and rigorously defined criteria for strategic choice.  To the extent that most of your answers come up “Yes,” it’s highly likely that you are indeed being strategic.