To many Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander organisations, a strategic plan is something that you are made to think is a good idea, that often is required for you to obtain funding.
It's a box that grant-funders tick off as if to say that if you had a strategic plan you must automatically show you are deserving.
Do these agencies who insist on seeing your strategic plan actually review that plan to see that it is fit for purpose and appropriate for you? Do they subsequently check that you have implemented the plan and that it is driving you in the right direction?
Do they care, other than to ensure they have done due diligence?
That's the problem.
A strategic plan should represent a flag on top of a hill that you strive toward.
Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander organisations are forced into preparing something for window-dressing and not shown what an invaluable tool a strategic plan is for its sustainability and ability to achieve visionary aims.
Not only are funding agencies insisting that you have a strategic plan, you "know" that it's what Business Schools teach people, so it must be good!
But nobody shows you how to use one - or even how to prepare one that means anything!
Let's be controversial and first, talk about what a strategic plan does not do.
A strategic plan, on its own, does not lead you to success.
Leaders do that.
A strategic plan does not mean that you can follow it day-by-day, and everything will turn out as planned.
It does not.
Things change, circumstances change. The military says "a plan is good until the first shot is fired" because they know the future is unpredictable.
However, here's what a strategic plan does if it is prepared properly.
It gives you an end goal that is the peak of what you were incorporated to do.
In other words, if the vision is described properly - and here's what's important - if that vision is then defined into the tangible measures of what makes "success", you have a clear set of measurements to check along the way that your actions are heading in the right direction, for your purpose.
This is not about prediction and predictability - this is about setting a goal, and then defining what makes up that goal. As circumstances change around you, your actions and the timing might change, but you are still organising and reorganising yourself to attain the measurements.
Let's take an example (simplified).
Let's say an organisation has a vision of a language group's culture being restored to such an extent that traditional practice and language is at the heart of its society.
It then defines this in 3 or 4 critical perspectives - say, People, Practice and Support.
They say that in order to know that their culture has been restored, that:-
- All their young People under 21 and more than 75% of all others must be able to speak their language fluently again;
- Cultural ceremonies are held every year;
- Their administration and corporate structure provide full and efficient support for Language schools and Ceremony.
Their strategic plan can then prepare strategies to achieve those measures, for example:-
- Opening a Language school
- Negotiating with local schools to include the Language in its curricula
- Engaging with Law Bosses to lead the ceremonies every year
- Ensuring funding is sought for logistics support
- Implementing a Cultural Support Unit on staff.
These are, of course, examples but you should be able to see that no matter what circumstances change these measurements of "success" do not change and therefore these high-level strategies do not change.
Despite catastrophes such as bush fires, COVID-19 or changes in Government, the tactics and timing might change, but all tactics need to align with those high-level strategies in order to attain those measurements.
Again, while the military recognises that the best-made plans need to change when the first shot is fired, nevertheless they know their strategic objectives - take Hill "A". or defend Fort "B". It's how they do these things that are forced to change.
So a strategic plan provides a clear direction of where to go.
It is up to management and leaders to find the best path there in the day-to-day.
The steps you take to write the strategic plan also help you define your journey because the process shows you what are key strategic issues, and what is possible and practical.
Briefly, the correct steps are to:-
- Define your Vision - where do you want to end up and what will that look like in tangible terms?
- Where are you now? What is your starting place? This is important information. In the above example, if no child under 21 knows the Language then the tactics behind any strategy must be realistic about timing of attainment.
- What is the gap between where you want to go and where are you now? This shows you the key strategic issues - those key issues that, if tackled, can lead to a whole set of smaller issues being solved. This allows you to focus on real goals and not enter into a world of "to-do checklists".
- How do you bridge the gap? What high-level strategies must you undertake and - importantly - what are the measurements of success?
- How do you implement, and ensure that the strategies are being followed?
The implementation is important. Clearly.
We started this article by recognising that most strategic plans are not really followed and remain dusty on shelves.
Part of the reason is that they meant nothing when prepared, especially if prepared merely to suit a grant-funding obligation. The organisation's Vision was not invested in it, there was no real interpretation of what it meant to achieve that Vision.
Another part of why strategic plans are not followed is that there is no built-in monitoring and review process. Without a meaningful monitoring and review process, even normal scheduled tasks take on the feeling of a "must-do" rather than something you are glad to get to do because it means something.
No wonder deadlines pass and soon deadlines don't matter anymore.
Monitoring and reviewing is not onerous.
First, you need time to take the strategic plan and expand it into shorter-term tactics (otherwise known as your business plans or operational plans).
Then you need to ensure that each person and team tasked with implementing the tactical actions understand why they are doing it and what part of the grand Vision they are helping to achieve. The milestones of measurements then become something to be proud of rather than merely a tick against a task.
For example, how much better to know that Language speakers have grown from 10% to 20% than it is to tick off "hiring a Language teacher".
Tasks must mean something tangible!
Once real measurements are installed, monitoring becomes a pleasurable task of checking on results and feeding back what went wrong or what delayed it and - importantly - therefore what needs to be done, or what needs to be acceptable.
So, what is a strategic plan for, in an Indigenous organisation, really?
It is a flag that you set on top of a hill - not even a detailed map of the road there.
Everyone should be able to see the flag.
Everyone should be able to see how far up the hill you have climbed.
They are smart enough and there are leaders enough to work out each step of the way up to the flag, even though this may change from year to year because of rain or lack of supplies, or because of rocks in the way or tress in the way.
They'll know the way to the flag if you set that flag in the right place.