Strategic Planning - A Better Way for Sport Leaders

Published March 25, 2011

Recently, I have come across a number of interesting articles (both research-based and mainstream) that might be of interest to those leading strategic planning processes within their sport organization. I am intrigued with the concept of simplifying strategic planning so that it does what it is supposed to do … help organizations plan better and prepare for the short and intermediate future. Alas, too often my colleagues and I hear from our clients that ‘our strategic plan is just sitting on the shelf collecting dust.’ Surely there is a better way?

My colleague Rachel Corbett recently wrote in this space about trying something new with strategic planning. In that article she made a case for rethinking the traditional approach to strategic planning, which is overly negative and militaristic. Instead of examining threats, weaknesses and the competition she suggested that the process can be much more uplifting and inspiring if we look at strengths, uniqueness and opportunities.

Building on this idea of a better way for strategic planning, I would suggest that leaders of sport organization and consultants need to customize the processes and tools that have been useful in for-profit businesses, not merely import them into the non-for-profit realm. Based on a number of recent strategic planning experiences with sport organizations, I am intrigued with the idea that strategic planning in not-for-profits is quite different than in our for-profit counterparts in many important ways. These are some of them....

The first difference has to do with the ever-changing basis of our membership. One tactic that I have recently employed encourages system-wide conversations to identify the most important strategies the organization needs to focus on over the next few years. This form of dialogue also begins to generate trust as members appreciate the opportunity to contribute and to be heard. Imagine that Board of Directors, staff, and key stakeholders are working together to gather important data, surface uplifting stories of when the organization has been at its best, and collaborate to determine what success looks like within a few years. This also provides the opportunity to reveal key considerations and environmental factors that are based on a number of different opinions, not just those of a select few. Based on appreciative inquiry and a SOAR analysis (looking at Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, Results), organizations are poised to uncover hidden assets and then work towards their vision in a strength-based manner.

A second important variable for not-for-profits is an underlining passion for the cause that instills a sense of meaning within the system (culture) that is rarely seen in our for-profit friends. It’s not to say that a billion dollar global corporation can’t generate enthusiasm for producing widgets, but I do suggest that it is different than what we in sport can produce and the resulting  ‘why we produce it’ is far more meaningful.

Knowing this, those of us engaged in planning exercises need to think about this ‘untapped asset’ called ‘passion for the cause’ as it is an important consideration when planning and mapping out long-term initiatives such as Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD). Anyone tasked with LTAD implementation will recognize the immense challenge ahead when thinking about who needs to know what, by when, how, and why. Thinking through to our end users requires us to acknowledge their existence – which has not always been the case. Strategic planning provides sport organizations with an opportunity to map out their end objectives while taking into account the system and the people required to enable long-term change  (which connects deeply with difference number one).

And finally, strategic planning is not just about creating an output – the plan. It is about mounting a crusade – equipping the system with the capacity it needs to be able to implement the plan. In a recent blog I read, management strategist Jim Lord reminded me that when Martin Luther King wanted to rally the troops he did not say “I have a strategic plan.” Instead, he shouted, “I have a dream” — and created a crusade. This kind of rallying call is known to sport leaders. We are bold, passionate, and fearless. Let us apply some of this daring to our planning initiatives.

When sport leaders are thinking about mapping out their future, holding themselves accountable to a desired set of outcomes, and creating an urgent appetite from their members to see it happen, consider  how your strategic planning initiative can be designed to not only create a product, but to serve as a leadership tool as well.

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