Strategic planning in a fast-moving world

Planning. We all do it. Some of us love it. Some of us hate it. Faced with a fast-changing world we need to find different ways to do it.

In this post I look at how organisations can plan and be strategic in response to rapid change, and what we can learn from organisations that are good at planning for digital work.

Do we need to change how we plan?

I’ve been thinking about this question as I plan two workshops for the NCVO Annual Conference on 18 April.

Two subjects I’m passionate about, having led NCVO’s foresight function for seven years before moving into my current role heading up our digital work. And also, two subjects that are more closely linked than you might think.

A fast-moving (digital) world

Talk of a fast-moving world will usually reference technology-driven change. Julie Dodd describes what we have all experienced in The New Reality:

The scale of change that has taken place – in how people choose to communicate, watch TV, learn, bank, shop and organise their lives – has been likened to the industrial revolution. And it’s not over yet. The pace of technology-fuelled change is still accelerating.

How do leaders respond when they perceive their environment to be changing (too) fast? A key factor is how well we believe we can respond.

Organisations will often be well practiced at responding in a strategic way to some changes in their environment, but can feel incredibly challenged by other shifts. ‘Digital’ can feel like one of these challenges. For many, tech = ‘difficult’, ‘risky’, ‘costly’ and ‘lengthy’.

But it doesn’t have to be so.

‘Agile’ – more than a buzz word

When the world is changing fast, being strategic is more important. So how we plan needs to enable us to be strategic.

Do you write 12 month plans? Do you start drafting these six months before the delivery period even starts? If you do, what is the result?

  • Do these plans block or stifle your ability to respond to external changes?
  • Do you ignore the plans? And if so, how do you then prioritise your work and align it to your strategy?

Luckily, there is a tried and tested method for responding quickly to changing user needs, which is practiced by organisations in all sectors who are good at developing digital products and services. It is an approach which values agility and adaptability. It has its own jargon (eg ‘prototype’, ‘iterate’ and ‘minimum viable product’) but basically, we’re talking about an approach to planning which values:

  • focusing on things that will create most value for your users and your organisation, and continuously reprioritising as your context changes
  • experimenting, getting something into the hands of your users quickly, and listening to what they think
  • improving the service or product continuously, in response to feedback, until each improvement is not delivering much more value (at which point, move onto something else).

‘Agile’ approaches are not just valuable for digital projects. They can deliver real value in any area where your organisation is trying to respond to a fast-moving world, whether or not your response involves technology.

Challenges for governance

Strategic planning and governance are intertwined. Agile approaches can be uncomfortable for trustee boards and leadership teams, who are used to signing off plans and budgets in advance and monitoring performance against them.

A changing world is often discussed as a risk, and yet responding to the risk can often be blocked by traditional planning and budgeting processes that discourage staff and financial resource being redirected.

The questions that leaders need to be asking

If a more agile approach makes sense for your organisation then as a leader you will need to delegate authority whilst continuously asking some important questions:

  • What have we released, and is the feedback from users positive?
  • How are we prioritising work and are the right people involved in these decisions?
  • Are we making space for experimentation, and do we have the right processes in place to support effective innovation?
  • Are we being bold?

I am looking forward to the two workshops on 18 April – particularly hearing about how all the participants are planning in this fast-changing world and how they are leading digital responses.

Interested in reading more?

Here are some top reads, and a fantastic video.


In a fast changing world, strategic plans are useless – discuss

Is it worth investing resource in developing a strategic plan or are they impractical in today’s fast changing world? Get involved in the debate at the Annual Conference workshop on 18 April 2016.

Find out more about NCVO Annual Conference 2016


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Megan Griffith Gray, Director of Strategy and Transformation Megan is director of strategy and transformation at NCVO and is responsible for the organisation’s strategy, planning and reporting. She also leads the digital, marketing and technology functions.

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