Three out of five organizations fail to implement their strategic plans. At least that’s what one study in 2012 found. So many factors conspire to make it challenging: resistance to change, exhaustion, limited financial and human resources. And, to be fair, it’s just hard to move from the very generative and big picture goalsetting cognitive space of strategic planning to the more concrete and tactical process of day-to-day implementation.

We’ve published a handful of articles on strategic planning since launching Northwest Nonprofit Notes in 2013 – and we’ve written on the challenges and opportunities of leading organizational change, but we haven’t specifically addressed what works when it comes to moving from the strategic planning process to the implementation process.

After some cross-client analysis, internet research, and discussion with consulting colleagues, I’ve found myself circling around the notion of an implementation mindset: a set of conditions and attributes that, if established, can improve your chances of successful implementation. Consider how you can apply these key elements and attributes with your team and organization to ensure you get the most out of your strategic planning investment of time and money.

Key Elements of an “Implementation Mindset”

A mindset by definition is an established set of attitudes, opinions, inclinations, or tendencies. Your mindset is instrumental in determining how you are going to act. For example, if you have an environmentalist mindset, you probably bring your own bags to the grocery store. What kind of mindset leads to implementation of an ambitious and multi-faceted strategic plan? Below are three elements of an implementation mindset that I’ve seen lead to successful implementation.

One: Empowered and Engaged Leadership
Your executive director, your senior leadership team, and your board officers all have a leadership role to play in successful implementation. Of course, it’s not that the senior-most leaders are singularly responsible for implementing strategic plans, but they are instrumental champions in the rallying, motivating, and inspiring of everyone in the organization. Leaders share a compelling vision, communicate plans, delegate out work, work through resistance, monitor execution, know when to drive hard (and when to not), and generally encourage the team and create a sense of urgency, accountability, and celebration around implementation.

Two: High Levels of Accountability
High performing nonprofits have a high degree of accountability: they have staff and board members who take on responsibility, do what they say they are going to do, and report back when they’ve done it. Highly accountable work teams have highly functional systems and structures to support their accountability. Spoiler alert: if your internal stakeholders had an authentic role in creating your strategic plan it will be easier for them to be accountable. People support what they help create.

Three: Effective Internal Communications
Your organization’s internal stakeholders (your staff, board members, and volunteers) are your most valuable asset. At Powerful Voices, we used to say “It’s not the glue sticks that make the difference, it’s the people!’ Facilitating conversations and connections within your organization, between and amongst all of these valuable internal stakeholders, can make a big difference in getting everyone energized and inspired to deliver on the strategic goals embedded in your strategic plan. This kind of informing and engaging creates deep loyalty and ownership and when rooted in your values makes it possible to work together as an extraordinary team that can achieve extraordinary results. Effective internal communications require identifying how you will be informing, updating, engaging, delegating and reporting back to your various internal audiences. And it requires calendaring in all these various elements because if it doesn’t get scheduled, it likely won’t happen – we’re all just too busy.

An Implementation Mindset in Action

Conceptual frameworks only go so far. What are some things you can do to nurture an implementation mindset and avoid that horrid 60% implementation failure rate? Below are eight things you can do:

  1. Assign or hire a Strategy Manager. This could be a component of an existing staff person’s job, or it could be a new hire. One of our clients, Team Read, wrote an ambitious 5-year growth plan to double the number of kids they serve and hired a part-time Director of Organizational Growth on an 18-month contract to get implementation off to a strong start. The position might transition out after 18 months, or it could be renewed; regardless, the focused attention on this phase of implementation will ensure focused energy during the crucial first phase of the strategic plan.
  2. Draft an Action Plan. Strategic plans answer the what and why; action plans clarify the who, when, and how. Don’t forget to do this very important work of translating your goals into actions! What are the deliverables, major milestones, resource requirements, and interdependencies? What is the logical sequence of activities across initiatives? Bridgespan has a fantastic guide that walks you through the process, titled Living Into Your Strategic Plan: A Guide to Implementation That Gets Results. Note: usually the team responsible for action planning is not the same team responsible for goal-setting. Typically, in staffed organizations, it’s the staff who are doing the implementing that are the best people to do the action planning.
  3. Align your strategy with your budget. Ensure resources are at your team’s disposal to implement the plan. One past client created a dedicated line-item in their budget for “strategic initiatives’. I know it can sound pollyanna-ish to say “ensure resources’ when it can be hard just to pay for what you’re doing now. It doesn’t have to be MORE resources (though that’s always nice), but it does mean prioritizing your strategic initiatives and deciding they are worth investing in – and if you can’t make the case for resourcing your strategic goals, then you might need to rethink your goals.
  4. Develop your structure. There are lots of ways to create structure. A few ideas:
    • Form an Implementation Task Force for one year. Appoint a Chair of that task force and clarify any deliverables. Have senior leaders actively and regularly support the task force along the way.
    • Have staff members integrate their specific strategic plan implementation tasks and responsibilities into their annual work plans and have it be a component of their annual performance review. 
    • Structure board meeting agendas by strategic goals, and develop a dashboard to track progress.
  5. Write an Internal Communications Plan. Big or small, one site or multiple sites, get your nonprofit’s internal communications organized and commit yourself to follow a calendar of activities. The core components of an internal communications plan are:
    • Purpose of a plan. A handful of statements about what effective internal communications will achieve… like: ‘communicate a positive and proactive message’ and ‘motivate transformational action’…
    • Target constituencies. Be clear about who your audiences are, because this will help you tailor your communications to your audience at different times and different ways. Board members have different interests than staff members. A volunteer who spends 10 hours a month with your organization will have different questions than a staff member who spends 40 hours a week. 
    • Core messages. These could be broad in nature with talking points or they could be more technical and specific depending upon the circumstance. It’s always good to include some key messages about the vision and intention behind the strategic plan goals and some specifics about operational shifts as a result of the plan.
    • Calendar: The communications vehicles (group meetings, one-on-ones, retreats, emails, etc.) you will use and how often you will be engaging, updating, reporting, reviewing and informing your internal audiences. Hard schedule these key activities into your schedule 18-months out!
  6. Evaluate yourself. While monitoring and adjustments to approach are often a daily or weekly practice, commit yourself to deep dive review sessions on at least an annual basis to allow for thorough re-strategizing, because if you’ve got an implementation mindset, you are learning from everything you’re doing and that is applied to the future process. Think of it as a grand experiment! 
  7. Create a strategic dashboard. It’s easy for implementation efforts to generate tremendous amounts of information, presented and tracked in documents, spreadsheets, presentations, data analysis reports, etc. It can be easy to lose the big picture. Create a simple one-page strategic dashboard that tracks and graphically reports on the top-level milestones and outcomes of your team’s effort to reach its goals. There are a million ways to create a dashboard – just google it! Allio Associates published a great article worth reading on the subject: Strategic dashboards: designing and deploying them to improve implementation.
  8. Last but not least, do some team building. Really, it will help. Teams that know each other well, that spend time learning about the strengths and styles of their teammates, that trust and respect each other – these are teams that accomplish great things. And team building doesn’t just happen at retreats or off sites. There can be team building in every convening, big or small. You can team build through acknowledgments and personalized celebrations of individual team member’s contributions. You can team build by developing a board/staff buddy system. Team building can be reinforced via emails and handmade posters. Work it in!

Building an implementation mindset requires engaged and empowered leadership, high levels of accountability and excellent internal communications. Successful implementation is within the reach of any organization that sets its mind to it.

What’s worked for you?