Strategy worthless without implementation

publication date: Sep 18, 2012
author/source: Janet Gadeski
Janet Gadeski photoThere's no point in chasing the newest flavour-of-the-month strategy if you don't implement well. That's the plain-spoken advice of fundraising strategy specialist Curt Swindoll

In his work with nonprofits all over North America, he's discovered eight keys that are essential to successful execution: urgency, vision, priorities, plans, actions, measures, accountability and recognition. All of them can be addressed, he says, provided you have the right people in the right roles.


The key to creating a sense of urgency, Swindoll explains, is setting priorities and then helping people to understand the negative consequences of not meeting them.

Urgency is not the same thing as crisis. Urgency calls for proactive, not reactive steps. Attention is focused on the top priority in time to create the maximum number of options, and goals are reached on time.

In a crisis, we react to something that's already gone wrong. Our attention is jerked from one blow-up to another and away from organizational priorities. By the time you hear yourself saying, "We have no choice but to do such-and-such," you have shifted from an urgent situation (where you still had a choice of options) to a crisis.


We talk about vision, we laud it, yet we can't quite describe it when we're forced to do a vision statement. But when we get it right, he says, it challenges people to tackle tough initiatives. It helps them understand why their job requires them to do what they do. It connects a team to the organization's primary focus.

(For a great clarification of the difference between vision and mission, read Getting vision and mission straight, by Fraser Green.)


Most nonprofits face an uneven balance, with more great opportunities than resources. Choosing to do some good things and not other good things is hard. But it's essential.

"So what are you willing to release so that other, more important work can be realized?" Swindoll asks. For both an organization and an individual, it means asking what you can do that no-one else can do, what you can do that others can expand, and how you balance short-term needs with long-term opportunities. Identify the strategic initiatives and operational infrastructure that will help you realize your vision. Let everything else go, no matter how great or enticing it is.


Swindoll offers one suggestion for charting an action plan. Take one strategic initiative. List its primary objectives, the resources required, the owner of each objective ("where the buck stops"), milestones and due dates, and the tangible outcomes. You can use any planning scheme you like, he says, as long as it addresses the top reason action plans fail: management inability to identify specific steps that are needed to accomplish strategic initiatives.

His long view is encouraging. "In my experience," he notes, "once an action plan has been developed with realistic due dates and owners, objectives become much more tangible and have a much stronger chance of being completed."


No matter how much time you spend on planning, taking action will be even more time-consuming. And lack of time, Swindoll observes, is the greatest challenge to acting.

To act on a strategic plan, everyone needs permission and discipline to eliminate unimportant tasks, meetings and standing commitments from their schedules. Start saying no to some requests and encouraging your team to do the same. Find ways to make your meetings more efficient and less frequent. Turn your calendar into a reflection of your priorities.

If crises derail your carefully planned schedule, note where they come from. Generally, crises reflect a habit already discussed - a previous failure to identify an urgent situation.


Choose key performance indicators that will reflect your progress and alert you early if something goes off track. Make sure they are fairly easy to track; there's no point asking for information that's too hard to assemble. For every indicator, ask yourself how quickly it will tell you if the initiative is not producing what you expected it would.


"Perhaps the greatest failure of nonprofit organizations is the failure to hold people accountable for their performance," Swindoll believes. Measures give you feedback. When the measures flag a lack of progress or a missed deadline, you need to act. Address the failure with the person who owns the objective. Clearer expectations, or better action planning, or more support from leadership may be required. Sometimes, though, the failure lies in the inability of that individual to perform at the level required.

As painful as it will be, that's better to address sooner than later. Nonperforming staff, he reminds us, cost the organization money.


The flip side of accountability, recognition comes into play when progress is made and deadlines are met. Public recognition celebrates performance, good project management, accountability and follow-through. It signals the kind of behaviour you want and the value you place on everyone's contribution. It helps to build an organizational culture of achievement. So practice what Swindoll calls "serial recognition."

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