In the Bridgespan Group's work developing strategic plans with clients, we've often heard a collective sigh of relief when the planning process is over. It's understandable. Strategic planning is hard work. It involves articulating the results for which the organization will hold itself accountable and the actions it will take to get there. Because it is hard work, it's tempting to think that finishing the written plan is equivalent to crossing the finish line.
But, of course, it isn't. Writing a strategic plan is only the first step towards achieving impact year after year. The next step is implementation, and often, that is where organizations stumble. In fact, when responding to our most recent organizational diagnostic survey, staff members at more than 120 nonprofits rated their employers’ capacity to implement their strategies 10 percent below their average rating for all other organizational capability areas. Respondents gave their organizations especially low marks on their abilities to break down their strategies into manageable pieces, communicate their visions and the change required to achieve them, allocate the staff and resources needed to achieve plan goals, and monitor progress and adjust course when change is needed. Those weaknesses can result in a lack of awareness of an organization’s strategic priorities, and disengagement between what staff members do on a daily basis and progress on those priorities. They can also result in under-resourced priorities that are important in name only, and ultimately, disappointingly slow progress toward achieving the organization’s goals.
If any of those symptoms sound familiar, this guide is designed for you. Its contents share Bridgespan clients' experiences as well as insights from other nonprofits that have excelled at building momentum as they moved from planning to implementation. (See sidebar "Peer-to-Peer Advice for Living into Your Plan" for advice from nonprofit leaders.)To create the guide, we conducted in-depth interviews with selected leaders of these organizations and solicited input from members of Bridgestar’s LinkedIn peer networking groups for chief executive, operating, and financial officers. Our goal was to better understand how these leaders have successfully lived into their strategic plans and to distill lessons from organizations that have moved from setting strategy to achieving impact. (A complete list of the nonprofit leaders we interviewed is included in the Acknowledgements section.)
What the organizations we interviewed share is an orientation towards change. They’ve used practical approaches to convert their visions into tangible actions, and they’ve been diligent about monitoring progress and correcting course when circumstances change. It’s this combination of mindset and implementation management that gets results. This guide presents their methods for implementation in six steps. Within each step, you also will find links to templates that illustrate the types of tools these nonprofit leaders used to lead implementation within their organizations.
A performance evaluation tool that provides a high-level overview of the progress of key activities and initiatives towards annual objectives and strategic priorities
The expected results or outputs from each key activity or strategic initiative
Major efforts required to make progress toward the strategic goals
Specifies the social change you are trying to achieve, for whom, and over what time period
Processes that rely on the deliverables from one key activity or stage of work before they can proceed
Connections between different key activities and initiatives that require matching resources or concurrent work across different organizational units
Major tasks to be completed in carrying out an initiative
The major events, accomplishments, deliverables, and decisions within each strategic initiative
Multi-year objectives established and embedded in your strategic plan
Empirical variables selected to provide insight into the results of activities and initiatives
The unique set of key activities, deliverables, and milestones for an individual, program team, or organizational unit
Although the path we’ve outlined from strategy to implementation may seem linear, executing on your plan is actually a highly iterative process. As you progress, you may find yourself revisiting decisions you made earlier as you learn from your experiences and encounter unanticipated challenges and opportunities. The sixth step, Revisit and Repeat, underscores the fact that you will need to go through the process annually (or potentially more frequently in times of major flux) in order to stay on track and achieve the impact you seek.
If you are reading this guide, our assumption is that you have a strategic plan and your strategy is sound, and you need help executing on it. The following six steps (referenced below in the graphic and as links to their respective pages) provide a road map for embarking on the process.
Each step offers an information and templates helpful in completing it, as well as real-life examples that share the stories of nonprofits who have successfully moved from planning to implementation. (To see an example of this process in more detail, please see this Simple Process Overview.)
Implementation that Gets Results: Step by Step
Steps included in this guide: