In this fast-paced and dynamic world, we are faced with decisions throughout the year that could change the scope of how we impact our mission. Identifying clear decision-making criteria allows us to vet these decisions against our overall strategy as an organization, without always having to go back through a full strategic planning process. Strategic planning is powerful if you are clear on why you are doing it, especially if you are able to clarify how to ensure that future decisions align with your strategy.
This article focuses on the use of a “strategy screen“, using some concepts from La Piana’s book Nonprofit Strategy Revolution and from Bridgespan’s article on using a set of key decison-making criteria when faced with new opportunities or challenges.
Strategy screen: what it is and why it matters
It may be helpful to think of a strategy screen as a sieve. A sieve is used for separating coarser from finer particles. Your strategy screen is the way you will sort your decisions, narrowing your focus or fine-tuning to focus your full energy on those “finer particles” that will bring the greatest impact on your mission right now. Nonprofit leaders already wear far too many hats and become stretched far too thin to be effective when they don’t know what to say no to.
When we talk about strategy we often think of our written strategic plan. Our strategic plan often has a set of overarching goals and objectives with some key benchmarks we intend to reach. The actual strategy, however, is the glue that holds those goals and objectives together. The strategy is better understood when we think about why we’ve chosen the focuses we have for the next several years. Likely, our focuses are related to things like where services are most needed and what we do best, what is financially sustainable, what has the greatest impact, etc. These are the very things that make up our chosen strategy and that become our criteria, screen or sieve for future decisions. A strategy screen then is a set of questions that will dictate whether we say yes or no to future decisions. The set of questions will vary by organization and may change every few years with the strategy of the organization.
How to create a strategy screen:
Ideally, your strategy screen is created as a part of your strategic planning process. As you spend time reflecting on where you are making the greatest impact, what you do best, and trends in your community, you gain clarity on where to put your energy. As this clarity emerges, you should be able to identify key questions that help you refine your focus, eventually creating your goals and objectives from there. This helps you ensure you understand the strategy behind the goals you choose, and that they connect well with each other. If you have gone through a strategic planning process recently and it is working well for you, you can likely create a strategy screen after the fact by asking yourself why you chose the priorities you did. The answer becomes your decision-making criteria, or the set of questions you will use for the future.
While the questions will vary with each organization, its stage of development, and the trends in the community, a list of common questions are below. It is important to note that the first question (“Is this consistent with our mission?) should always be part of the screen for any organization.
- Is this consistent with our mission?
- Is this likely to achieve a strong impact on our mission?
- Is this financially sustainable?
- Are we the organization best positioned to acheive the greatest results on this?
- Do we have the capacity to do this well?
- Will this help us to achieve our key priority of X?
How to use a strategy screen effectively:
This is the really simple part. Once you have agreed upon your set of questions, you use them as a seive each time there is a strategic decision to be made. During strategic planning, once the strategy screen is developed the board and staff leadership use it to determine their overarching goals and strategies for meeting them. Once the plan is developed, the questions can be used by leaders in the moment to make quick decisions and can be a tool for engaging a leadership team or board of directors in risk management, strategy oversight and to stimulate generative discussion.
This screen or set of questions can continue to be used until you have a change in your strategy as an organization. If your strategy changes, your screen should too!