Ask Corbett: Strategic Planning! — Really?


When Strategic Planning Is Not the Strategic Thing to Do

By Corbett Barklie




Strategic planning is a big idea that means different things to different people. It’s a highly organized process that sets objectives and priorities, identifies actions and strategies. Plans move from big picture to small details and action items. Planning should be a carefully considered, organization-wide activity that will cost the organization time, energy, and probably money. Plans are hard work and can be detrimental to an organization when done incorrectly or at the wrong time.


I’ve noticed that most arts organizations think they should have a strategic plan and many arts managers and board members spend significant time fretting about not having one. It is also my experience that many groups, having gone to the time, trouble and expense of creating a plan, spend very little time actually using it.


To complicate the strategic planning issue even more, many charitable foundations and government granting programs require that nonprofit organizations have a strategic plan in place before funding is even considered. I can’t tell you how many executive and artistic directors have asked me for a “sample” strategic plan the night before a grant deadline. Coincidence?


Throwing a strategic plan together at the last minute to satisfy a well-intentioned funder is a colossal waste of time. It is also a waste of time to worry about not having a strategic plan, unless you are quite sure you need one.


Do Plan to Change

In my opinion, there is only one time to engage in planning and that’s when you want something to change. Let’s say you want to increase your number of performances, or diversify your audience, or re-focus your Board, or move to another venue — that’s when you must have a plan.


A strategic plan sits in the void between what you have and what you want and, if it’s done well, it will help get you where you want to go.


Don’t Plan When You’re Content

If everything is fine, meaning you’re happy with the work, the audience, the staff, the venue, and the money, then there is absolutely no reason to create a strategic plan. If everything feels okay, then you are stable and that’s amazing! Stabilization is a very well discussed topic in the arts community and, while there a numerous recommendations for achieving stability – all, by the way, include planning – there is very little information about how stable organizations maintain their equilibrium. It’s almost as though we believe that stability really doesn’t exist at all, certainly not outside of major institutions with endowments and real estate. But I think we have excellent examples of small and mid-sized organizations that are very stable right here in Southern California.


Don’t Plan in a Crisis

No matter what the crisis is — whether financial, emotional, spiritual, creative, physical or other — it is not the time to be setting future objectives or making decisions about how you’ll behave in a year, or two, or three. You don’t have objectivity in a crisis. Your ability to be strategic is greatly diminished. This is a time when planning can do more harm than good, it can also cost you time and money when those assets are probably pretty scarce.


I’d like to point out that while I don’t recommend strategic planning in a time of crisis, I do recommend making To Do Lists. The lists should be comprised of tasks that are easily completed in a short timeframe. Perhaps your To Do List for today will include writing a thank you letter (gratitude is extremely powerful in times of crisis) or doing some research on a project you’d like to undertake. Give yourself easily accomplished tasks and check them off as you go along. Take one day at a time in a crisis. Forget about next year and the year after, you only need to figure out today.