How I got Burned in My Last Strategic Planning Process (And What You Can Do to Avoid It)
In late 2015, Code2040 had been around for 3.5 years. We were doing well with a ton of momentum, early successes, and, after some tight times in earlier years, the wind at our backs with fundraising. We had learned a lot, and while we had been smart and opportunistic in our impact and growth to date, at that point we were pretty sure the organization was going to stick around long enough that it made sense to get a bit more proactive. It was time to create a strategic plan.
We interviewed firms and engaged one we really liked with a lead consultant we were really excited about. We got to work. The first half of 2016 we ran a creative, open, inclusive strategic planning process that I’m proud of and would do again. We created multiple ways for all staff regardless of seniority or tenure to participate. We involved our constituents and our community. We deliberately and repeatedly questioned all our previous choices with the goal of really understanding what the market needed, what we were best equipped to provide, and thus whether and how we should grow bits or all of the organization.
The plan we crafted was short, explicit, and favored bullet points and charts over flowery prose. We turned it into team-by-team action plans so that everyone could execute in sync. And in summer 2016, we got to work.
And then Donald Trump was elected president. Our core communities (Black and Latinx people) were and felt threatened and silenced as white supremacists were emboldened. Tech companies who had been publicly pro-diversity in the Obama years clamped up. And as the winds continued to shift, my heart sank.
We had created a beautiful, functional, coherent, inclusive, actionable strategic plan -- for a world we no longer lived in.
The problem was, we’d never formally, explicitly identified that assumption -- the assumption that the trend towards diversity and inclusion being desirable and important would continue. And because we’d never identified the assumption upon which our entire strategy was predicated, we had never thought to create a plan for how to revisit our strategy in the event that this assumption didn’t hold.
This sounds like an obvious mistake in retrospect. But in spring of 2016 did you think Trump would win the presidency? That the wave of momentum towards equity we were riding would crash into a hard wall of bigotry? I will freely admit that at that point in time I did not.
Of course in the plan we had contingencies for slow downs in support from tech companies and the like. We weren’t so naive as to assume our market and circumstances were a constant. But the contingencies we had were gentle hedges, like, “how might we continue to enable ourselves to execute on this plan if revenue growth from the tech sector slows?”
Our assumption was that we understood the market well enough that this plan would carry us through 2020, perhaps with some light edits as we learned more over time. We never once asked ourselves, “How do we know when do we need to throw this plan completely out the window and start over from scratch?”
The fact that we were not explicit about describing the world we were operating in, and the ways in which our strategy was contingent on certain characteristics of that world persisting, meant that we were several months late in recognizing that key underlying premises of our plan were no longer holding and we needed to trash it. It was valuable time wasted.
Luckily for Code2040, we did realize we needed to stop executing on the old strategy before we poured too many more resources into it to bounce back. And luckily for Code2040, we had an awesome CEO-in-waiting who could step up and lead the development of this new strategy when it was time for me to step down as CEO (more on that here).
But I don’t take that happy-ish ending as a given. I can easily imagine a world where we had been a bit less in tune with our market, had used past success to wrongly predict future success, had been distracted by something that seemed urgent at the time, and had thus missed the chance to create a new strategy while we still had the resources to execute on it. As it was, we certainly would have been better off if we realized the need to pivot earlier.
Interestingly, in my current role providing founder support at New Media Ventures, I am working with a lot of startups that were formed in the wake of the 2016 election. These are organizations that did not exist prior to the Trump presidency, and came together fast. They threw together new strategies that perfectly reacted to the moment in time -- they were extra nimble because they didn’t have past strategies to leave behind and pivot from. There was no risk of inertia. It’s a fascinating counterpoint to my experience with Code2040.
Let me be clear: strategies and strategic plans don’t work if you’re constantly questioning them. They serve to unite a team and to provide clarity around goals and direction. New ideas will always have some appeal, but your strategy is there to keep you honest about what you’re trying to accomplish, ensuring that it’s impactful, not just shiny. I am not advocating for ditching strategic plans or constantly questioning them.
But a strategic plan is not infallible. And the key is to create the parameters for how you check in on it without making it constantly up for debate. If I were doing it again, I would have had a section up front that enumerated the 2-3 key assumptions that needed to hold true for this plan to be valid. I would have kept an eye on those and empowered anyone on the team to throw up a flag if they thought they had evidence that the assumptions were no longer holding. Outside of that, our goal would have been to execute against the strategy as written.
Since I stepped down as CEO of Code2040 earlier this year, I am no longer privy to the organization’s latest internal strategy, and I don’t know what the game plan is in this new world. But I do know one thing -- the lessons we learned from our last planning process were dramatic enough that I believe they will stick. And that’s good, because when the wind changes again the org will be ready.
And now I hope you will be, too.