Strategic Plans: A simple version

19 April 2013

I get asked about strategic plans quite a bit. Several think tanks, either on their own accord or pressured by their funders, are busy developing a strategic plan. I’ve come across  two broad types of plans:

  • The log frame plan that details specific policy objectives, audiences, and even establishes indicators of policy impact; and
  • The Annual Report plan that solely relies on its annual report to the think tank’s board to outline a plan and review progress;

The former is too detailed while the latter probably not enough (at least not given that many think tanks depend on funders with high value for money expectations and would rather they reported absolutely everything the think tanks did, no matter how small).

In any case, I would aim for something in the middle.

A simple and short strategic plan

It is important to remember that a think tank is an organisation and therefore the strategic plan does not need to be too specific -it should not feel like a programme or project. It should not be possible to logframe it. At least that is my view.

Below is an outline of a plan:

  • (1/2 page) Vision, mission and virtues. Above all, here the think tank must express its value proposition. The reader should be able to understand the contribution that the think tank attempts to make to its society.
    • The vision is the ideal world. It is not what the think tank will do (that is the mission) to achieve it and it need not be something that the reader can expect to see in the short term. If it is doable it is probably not visionary enough -but be realistic.
    • The mission is what the think tank will do to contribute to the achievement of the vision, the functions. There does not have to be a direct relation of cause and effect between mission and vision. No single organisation could claim its achievement.
    • What is the moral case for the think tank?
    • Virtues are the values of the organisation; its principles. I like these: 10 virtues for the modern age plus Wisdom.
  • (2-4 pages) Things we will do to fulfil our mission: this could be organised according to, for instance:
    • The usual think tank activities: Research (describe the issues or areas of studies), communications (describe the channels and tools), capacity development (describe the mechanisms), etc.; or
    • More original terms: Generate knowledge, share knowledge, promote public debate/understanding, develop capacities, etc. (depending on the functions of the think tank); or
    • Idea driven: The mission could be described in relation to key initiatives such as the way that CGD does.
  • (2-4 pages) Things we need to deliver the mission: these are the inputs or the back-office to the mission:
    • Governance and management (structure, names and roles);
    • Business model (how will the think tank get its funds and deliver its outputs);
    • Financial resources (and other assets, who provides them, and how they will be procured);
    • Human resources (and how we will retain and get more);
    • Partnerships and networks (idem);
    • Monitoring, evaluation and learning;
    • Organisational change (e.g. specific projects/changes required for the next 5 years)
    • etc.
  • (1-2 pages) How will we know we are on the right track: this is an outline of the (not the full) M,E&L strategy:
    • Values and principles (describing how well the organisation is doing in terms of ‘living by’ its virtues);
    • Performance (describing how the think tank will keep an eye on the use of its resources -financial and human; including time-sheets, audits and staff performance reviews)
    • Quality (describing how the think tank will ensure and measure quality of the outputs (papers, briefs, events, website, etc) and of the advice (of the experts);
    • Visibility (describing how it will measure it -but keep it simple: and in relation to core audiences); and
    • Relevance (describing how the centre will ensure that its research agenda and outputs (content and format/channel) is relevant to its core audiences);

There is no need for SMART objectives all over the place. These are OK for organisational change projects maybe but not for the think tank itself (although this could be part of the vision) SMART objectives are more relevant for initiatives or programmes or, and this may be an exception, for single issue think tanks like the ones I have proposed in relation to natural resources.

Too much detail not that useful when the strategy needs to be relevant for 3-5 years. Every year, when it is reviewed, it ought to be possible to update it without much hassle. A simple strategy can be updated without much trouble (e.g. add a theme, or add a communications channel, or an initiative, etc). Long and complicated  plans, on the other hand, have high menu costs.

And one more thin. Why not publish your strategy on your site and allow comments and feedback? Surely there will be someone out there who will be able to offer good and insightful advice.