Three Strategic Planning Challenges

By    Jun 5, 2013

I’ve been part of a group helping the Association of Arts Administration Educators (AAAE) review their guidelines for graduate-level education in strategic planning. I’ve found myself thinking about three challenges in strategic planning that we see in our work, and I wanted to release these thoughts into the wild and see what happens. On the one hand, I hope raising these questions sparks your thinking about your strategic planning challenges. On the other, I (and I have no doubt our entire community) would love to hear stories about how you have tackled these challenges in your work:


Challenge #1: Approaching strategy as a set of parameters to guide creative actions, rather than as a “five year plan in a big book.” 

We see many organizations with strategic plans that include tremendous tactical detail on how specific outcomes will be achieved. The AAAE curricula guidelines talk about the integration of evaluation with strategy to support the revision of plans, which is great. I’m curious how far organizations can go to create strategic plans that assume continuous change and innovation. Strategic planning needs to start with analysis of the organization’s environment, assets, capabilities, and differentiation, and requires prioritization of current activities and resources. However, the focus for future plans can be a set of guiding ideas and target outcomes rather than the “big book” of tactical plans. These goals would provide the targets and boundaries for adaptive activities implemented over time. One way to turn this idea into a tangible activity in a strategic planning process would be to capture the objectives in a scorecard or dashboard like the one Peter Frumkin discusses in this NAS online lesson on Measuring Effectiveness. (This online lesson is not framed in the context of strategic planning, but imagine a scorecard like this as one of the core outputs of a strategic planning process.)


Challenge #2: Untangling organizational purpose and organizational strategy.

Outside of the cultural field, the purpose or value created by the organization is almost always independent of how that value is delivered. Consider IBM: it has delivered on the same purpose and value – enabling businesses to be more efficient and successful – for a century, but the “platform” it has used to achieve that purpose has evolved from selling time management equipment to mainframe manufacturing and sales, then to minicomputer sales, PC sales, and now consulting services. Or consider a nonprofit organization such as CARE: its humanitarian mission was originally implemented through care packages, but over the last 65 years its platform has evolved to leverage education, healthcare delivery, policy development, and a host of mutually reinforcing activities. Many cultural institutions, on the other hand, have a purpose that incorporates exactly how the purpose will be achieved: through live in-person theater, or through live orchestral music, or through community radio, or through an historical site. This blending of a strategy element – the platform by which a purpose will be met – into the purpose is not inherently appropriate or inappropriate. The challenge is to make this integration explicit in the planning process and recognize the specific limits it puts on strategic options (including those for radically new business models). Is there a purpose for the organization that is independent of the cultural form? How far can this restriction be loosened? How does that feel for everyone involved? Would that be right for this specific organization, or is the form the mission?


Challenge #3: Incorporating “what people think” (reputation and the social definition of value) in strategic planning.

The core strategic planning frameworks used in other industries provide a solid foundation for strategic planning in the cultural field. But there is a central role for what I will call “what people think” in the cultural field that doesn’t get sufficient attention in strategic plans. The first aspect of this is the central role of reputation in strategy. We offer audiences novel experiences and programs that are difficult to evaluate. Consumer trust is therefore essential and reputation is the embodiment of that trust. The second aspect of “what people think” is the way value is socially defined. This is important in lots of industries (consider the reemergence of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer as a hipster preference) but it is especially important in the cultural field (consider Duchamp’s readymades as one reminder of how important context is in defining cultural value).  The challenge in strategic planning is to ask what reputation you will create, how you will create that reputation, and how you will leverage and affect the (inescapably) socially-defined value of what you are offering. I don’t have a general purpose article or book to point to on this topic, but two professors we work with provide interesting places to start exploring the topic. Violina Rindova is a great source on reputation-based strategy though these two available articles on the topic are very technical: “Being Good or Being Known”  and “The Social Construction of Market Popularity.”  Mukti Khaire looks at these questions as well, and a few of her general audience articles capture interesting insights about reputation and value: “Modern Indian Art: The Birth of a Market,” “How Can Start Ups Grow?”  and “Culture Changers: Managing High-Impact Entrepreneurs.”