Planning for the unpredictable

Your strategic planning process must ensure there are plenty of opportunities for you, the leader, to be surprised. If you forge ahead based on what you already know, or what your research plan discovers, the strat plan will simply reflect what you thought you should research and think about. Simply put, you don’t know what you don’t know, and you need to check regularly for blind spots.

Map showing

To get really fresh, daring, out-of-the-box ideas, to get completely new approaches to pursuing your mission, you need to enter terra incognita, the unknown land. You need a planning process that deliberately introduces the unpredictable, the unforeseeable; the jarring, non sequitur idea that makes you say, “Oh yeah! Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?”

No Self-Help can help

You can’t do this on your own. Your staff and board can’t do it either, because they are too close to the way you think and you probably have a common understanding of “the way things are.” Unless you have some very new staff or directors, you all share the same organizational lore, mindset and assumptions.

No, the only people who can take you into uncharted territory are people who are on the periphery or even completely right off your map. This is “edge-centric” strategy development. People on the edges are not tainted by your organizational history or its aspirations. They will say whatever they think, without prejudging whether or not you want to hear it. They will call it as they see it, and they will do that from a variety of perspectives and assumptions that are vastly different from your own. Their ideas are worth their weight in gold!

Outsource your planning

One of the ways to introduce unpredictability into the planning process is to outsource part of it by engaging people on the periphery. Here are some ideas for how you can do that:

  • Non-users
    • Find people who don’t support your ministry or use its services and ask them about their needs and wants. Whatever service you are providing, ask what they are doing instead. For example, we used our database to find members who have not attended a conference in the past five years, and we surveyed them to find out why they don’t come. We discovered they like to get their information from books and the Internet, don’t like to travel and don’t value the networking that occurs at a conference. They still want the information provided by the conference, but in a different format.
    • Using CRA’s database, we can identify Christian charities that are not members of CCCC.  In the strategic review we will be surveying them to find out how they get by without us. We just don’t understand that!! 😛 Seriously, we want to know how they satisfy the needs that we think we fulfill. Is there anything we can help them with? If they know about us, why have they chosen not to take out a membership?
    • Who is a non-user for you? One would be a Christian who does not financially support your ministry. You can be pretty sure they are giving to at least a few ministries. Why not yours? Some ministries have causes that are hard to raise support for. Why not dig into how people perceive your cause and see if there is a better angle you could use to raise support? If people are not using your devotional material, find out what they do use. Do they have any formal way of doing their daily devotions? Maybe they will give you an idea for a new product. Ask friends, staff and supporters to recommend people to you to participate in a focus group or a survey. I think for most ministries that will be the easiest way to identify non-users.
  • Non-traditional voices
    • Whose voice is not usually heard in your ministry? Go seek it out. For the strategic review, we wanted to hear from up and coming ministry leaders, so we brainstormed how to get a number of them to give us a few days of their precious time to work on our strategic plan for us. We developed a win-win-win. We offered a free (yes free!) three-day strategic planning course. We asked members and non-members to suggest the names of young, creative leaders interested in Christian ministry and invited them to come. They got some professional development that will help them with their careers, they shared a meal with our board, and they had the experience of making a board presentation. Their employers got some training done at no cost. And since we used CCCC as the case study, they applied their new strategic planning/thinking skills to our ministry. What a deal! We ran it in Langley, BC and Etobicoke, ON. Thanks to Focus on the Family and Opportunity International who let us use their boardrooms.  Many of the students had virtually no knowledge of CCCC except that they knew something called CCCC existed, so they also qualified as non-users. They were full of ideas that we will be considering during the strategic review, and I’m sure many of their ideas will be used.
    • How could you do this? Why not gather potential donors or users of your services and give them a day or so of training in your core ministry. Help them evangelise better. Give them a greater understanding of the root causes of poverty. And ask them to help you design a better way of conducting your ministry.
  • Unexpected users
    • Have you ever discovered a user you didn’t expect? I have. Two years ago I was in a French class and my seatmate said he was a CCCC member. I asked what his ministry was, and he said it wasn’t a ministry. It was a completely secular agency. “Why would you want to belong to a Christian organization?” I asked. (We do allow secular members — they can’t be Certified, but they can receive our materials.) Apparently we do very good work that applies to all charities and they can put up with the prayer requests we send out and the occasional theologically-based article. “We can skip the articles if we want, and I guess prayer never hurts,” he said. It was an interesting perspective and it says that much of our material has application beyond Christian charities.
    • Maybe you’ve had an unexpected large donation from a new donor. Why? How did the donor find you? Why you and not someone else? What did they see and value about your ministry?
    • Perhaps a program has suddenly had great success with a group you never thought would be interested. Again, why? What’s going on? You just might have a new initiative!
  • Unexpected uses
    • For-profit companies often send staff out to watch customers use their products and services. Some even have people live in a home for a day or two to observe. They are looking to see how the product is used. They are especially interested in seeing someone use it in a way they never expected. When they find that, they often have a new use to include in their advertising.
    • Maybe someone isn’t using your material as expected for personal devotions, but is using it as a neighbourhood outreach. Maybe a leader’s guide would be helpful.
    • Perhaps someone is downloading your sermons, but you discover they are being translated and sent to another country. Maybe you have a ministry somewhere you don’t even know about. If it is bearing fruit, then maybe you should make it a program and ramp it up.
  • Non-competitors
    • Most for-profits watch their competition closely, and copy anything that looks successful. In the ministry world, we do the same thing. Maybe you should stop copying someone else and look outside of your sector, outside of the nonprofit sector entirely, and see how things are being done elsewhere. Ask how that might apply in your context. That’s how leadership in innovation is achieved. It’s not by copying others but by creating new strategies, often by taking something from one market and applying it in another.
  • Foreign Lands
    • Most of our members operate in Canada and maybe a few other countries. Get out beyond that and see how things are done in different cultures around the world. This was the real benefit of my sabbatical trip — seeing how things are done in other countries and realizing that the way we do it in Canada is not the only way it can be done. There are similarities, but there are many differences, and it may be that in the differences you will find something new to bring back to Canada with you.

These are all sources that are likely to supply you with ideas you could never have come up with on your own. They all take planning to set-up, but once you’ve engaged with these people you will not be able to predict what great ideas will be offered to you.

Happy planning! And if you have another way of opening yourself up to the unpredictable, please post a comment! I’m keen to hear about them.

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Thoughts on Planning for the unpredictable

  1. Scott Cochrane

    John, I think you’ve nailed one of the greatest challenges faced by strategic planners; that of considering factors beyond the things we already know. Thanks for the practical insights

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