Several clients recently have asked us to help with strategic planning. The more I have worked with networks and cross-sector initiatives, I have seen the limits of the traditional way of thinking about strategy. Typically, a strategy will be for one organization to look out at the world, assess “strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats” and devise an action plan for how they will influence change in the world.
When thinking about strategy for a network and/or multi-organization collaborative initiative, it calls for a different set of questions (as this section of our web site explores.) One key difference is to shift from a specific goal of one organization to focus on creating conditions for various players who work in the field to work more effectively by aligning their work around a shared goal and and finding ways to collaborate.
Here are examples of questions to craft a network-oriented strategy, from our work with non-profits and others working on social change goals such as growing a local food economy or improving educational outcomes for students in a community:
- Where are most effective places to intervene in the system to achieve our shared goal?
- What is needed to inspire, enable, and support people at these key parts of the system to self-organize and pursue this goal, e.g., transition their choices to more local foods?
- Who is doing what? (This is where a network mapping and social network analysis can be quite valuable.)
- Where are there gaps/overlaps?
- What needs to happen collectively that individual people or organizations can’t make happen? (Or, said another way: What are projects or activities that are needed to reach the goal that no one organization can pull off alone?)
- What needs to happen to change the system that’s not happening?
- Seeing this, where does it make sense for the network to focus as to not overlap with these organizations?
(In most areas of social change, there is a crowded field of players that keeps changing. For the network to stay relevant it needs to assess regularly where it is adding value to keep strategic focus.)
- What are criteria for actions/projects/investments for the network or collaborative initiative? For example:
- Provide connection/learning across multiple organizations/sectors; amplify learning by aggregating knowledge of the field
- Advance progress on barriers common across organizations, e.g., host a joint forum/summit about an area of barrier/opportunity
- Align and coordinate work on key leverage points, e.g., facilitate work groups or task forces, invest and share research
- Provide centralized support functions that the whole field can use/contribute to (e.g., metrics, message Q&A boards or list serv)
- Incubate ideas and/or invest in a space, where there is a need that is not being addressed
- Capitalize on connections – enable members to gain greater access through mutual connections, e.g., policy advocacy, connections to decision-makers, research