Organizations that thrive in a changing world all have one thing in common – a strong strategic focus. They know their objectives and strategy very well and communicate them effectively. What is less obvious is that a good strategic plan comes from individual people. It takes a lot of skill and a little planning to work it up into a real plan, but there is never any substitute for the old “walk and talk” – getting to know the clients, customers, employees, citizens, or any other way you want to define the people of an operation.
There has been a lot more “grassroots organizing” lately. We’ve had people marching in the streets, use of small contributions to build a bigger pot, and campaigns that people can show their support for on facebook. None of these are really the kind of effort that builds an organization or lends themselves to strategic operations. They are instead a show of force – a demonstration that people are already onboard and committed to the cause. Building a lasting operation is a very different thing altogether.
The easiest strategic planning examples always involve community organization. When the need is defined geographically, it has boundaries and definitions. People also have a stake, both monetary and emotional, invested in the built-up world that fits within the lines of the ‘hood. Where strategic planning comes into play is when things may have changed within those boundaries. That is where there is no substitute for what is often called a “Needs Assessment” – walking and talking and listening to people to find out what’s really going on.
Take a community organization has been offering a variety of services and programs for years. Participation remains high and client surveys are very positive. Is that good enough? Not if a new need has come in, especially if the population is changing. The beauty of community organizations is that while the boundaries might be obvious, the skills required to serve well within that area are as diverse as the needs. You have to ask the people who have not shown up why they aren’t there as much as you ask your existing clients if you want to have a long-term focus.
Issue organizing can be very different because people may not be as invested in the cause. The territory can also drift a bit if people have an angle on your issue that really sells it in ways that you never anticipated. You may even have something that no one cares about, in which case you have to convince people or drop the matter. The only way to find out is to ask.
None of this has a lot to do with government upfront. FDR famously told people who lobbied him, “You’ve convinced me – now go out and put pressure on me”. What he meant was that you can never expect representative government to take the lead on an issue because, very simply, it has a limited ability to listen to people and their real needs. Organizing is the only way that small voices can be heard, and if the matter is a bit out of the mainstream it takes an organization with a clear strategic goal to make a big change. You can’t be in it for the short haul – and nothing builds an organization better than shared work. You have to start someplace.
Political organizing also has very strong limits. If you want to win an election against an incumbent, which is to say make a change, there are really only two avenues that work. One is that they’ve lost touch with the community, which is to say the challenger has walked and talked the streets, or there is a wedge issue, meaning that something which resonates with voters has been identified. There still has to be a strategic focus, and it always comes down to walk and talk one way or another.
Large companies are really no different than government when it comes to strategic focus. “Undercover CEO” is a new show that premiered just after the Superbowl which puts the reality into reality teevee. The CEO of Waste Management went in disguise into his own company to hear just how the grand plans of the corporation worked on the ground. They had everything going for them as an organization, including well defined goals, shared history of working together, and incentive in the form of a paycheck. But it took some walk and talk time for the CEO to understand the limits on his employees.
Organizations need strong leadership and clear vision to thrive, especially in changing times. What is often less obvious is that this comes from an understanding that is, literally, pedestrian in origin. A useful strategic plan comes from the people that it serves and reflects back to them in clear, concise language. Anything else is unlikely to be successful.