Planning: Strategic or Tactical?

Are you putting the cart before the horse?

Whether your ultimate goal is a solid marketing plan, a sound fund development plan, or, even more broadly, an overall direction for your organization for the next three years, it’s important to consider the significant differences between strategic planning and tactical planning. Both have a place, but one comes before the other – that is, if you hope to continue moving forward on a clear path toward a meaningful goal without a lot of costly side trips and unforeseen rerouting.

For the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus on strategic and tactical planning for marketing and fund development specifically, leaving the really big-picture, whole-organization planning aside.

To develop some context, let’s create a sample scenario: An elementary school is planning a fund raiser. Why? Because they always have a fund raiser in February, and now it’s time to form the committee and start planning. Someone comes up with the idea of a book sale – after all, reading in the home is something the teachers definitely want to promote. That suggestion gives someone a specific idea: How about a Harry Potter theme? Now everyone is excited. The children and the parents and even the staff can have a good time at such an event.

Now the conversation turns to where and when to hold this Harry Potter-themed book sale. The three obvious venues are the school’s library, cafeteria and gymnasium. As the PTA board members toss around pros and cons for each, someone suggests actually holding the event in a lovely bookstore near the school. That does sound attractive, so the conversation turns in that direction: How much room do they have for us? What will they expect to get out of it? Maybe they’ll donate some books to our library. Do they sell Harry Potter books? Will our theme appeal to them? Maybe we shouldn’t have chosen the theme yet.

Soon the school facilities are forgotten. The theme is now up in the air as the venue starts to drive the conversation. But this new venue introduces a host of new challenges – and some attractive - albeit merely theoretical - benefits: Might we establish some sort of relationship with this book store? Could it help us boost our children’s reading interest? Again, what would the store owner expect in return for a long-term supportive relationship? And if we do the event there, will they let us provide refreshments? Should we encourage the kids to wear costumes? Should the adults running it wear costumes?

And so it goes; the planning for the February fund raiser has gone off the rails before they’ve even considered a date for the event. But wait – it’s worse than that, because the planning for that annual event was doomed to failure from the start. Why? It was tactical planning, not strategic planning.

I can imagine your response to that: For heaven’s sake! Do you expect us to conduct strategic planning every time we decide to start a short-range project or host an event or launch a new promotional effort? Good grief! Do you have any idea how painful strategic planning is for our organization? We tear our hair out for a whole week every year over that doggoned strategic plan; every third year we all come near to resigning over the formation of a new strategic plan. Give us a break.

I hear you. Been there. Done that. Felt the pain. But I won’t let you off the hook. May I instead help you modify your perception of strategic planning? You see, I understand because I’ve been in your shoes. If “strategic planning” is the annual, torturous event meant to drive all decisions for the next 12 months (and then, when completed, is sometimes put on a shelf and forgotten), you and I may be forgiven for getting a bitter taste in our mouths when we hear the term.

Even worse, if your organization never does that annual strategic planning – never feels the pain – you might be in an even more precarious situation. While we would hope that all annual or bi-annual strategic planning were done well and used appropriately, even painful long-term strategizing is useful and important. If you never, ever plan strategically but only tactically, you are in even bigger trouble than the folks who know what’s coming every January and plan ahead to be out sick for an entire week.

So let’s start with a basic understanding of strategic planning. What does it mean to be strategic? I submit that it means identifying and approaching objectives somewhat artfully or even scientifically, identifying plans, methods, or maneuvers (stratagems) that, taken as a whole, will likely get you to a very clearly articulated goal. And therein lies our first clue: What is the goal? Why on earth would anyone purchase an airline ticket with no destination in mind just because they have earned enough free miles? Why would you burn gas to drive around, missing out on important work and play, with no purpose in mind? Why would you waste your time hitchhiking to Arizona unless you have some clear objectives once you get there?

Let’s go back to our elementary PTA board and their annual February fund raising event. Let’s begin with “goal” and ask each board member privately what the goal of this event is, now that they’ve spent 35 minutes tossing around “plans.”

·      Person #1: The goal is to have a fun event that raises interest in reading.

·      Person #2: The goal is to host a Harry Potter-themed book sale.

·      Person #3: The goal is to have an annual February fund raiser.

·      Person #4: The goal is to establish a supportive relationship with a nearby business that can promote the mission of the school.

·      Person #5: The goal is to have a book sale so we can raise money and encourage reading at the same time.

·      Person #6: The goal is to have a fun family event in February.

I would say Person #3 came somewhat close to the actual goal; the others have been completely distracted and confused by consideration of tactics. But even Person #3 has missed the very fundamental point: Why do we have a fund raiser? Why in February? Even more basic: Why do we have fund raisers at all? That begs some more questions: For what are we raising funds? Why do we always do it in February? How much do we need to raise, and how is that figure determined?

Assuming that fund raising is part of the role of the PTA board, and assuming, quite logically, that any school is almost always in the need of more funding, let’s recast this scenario in a “strategic” rather than “tactical” planning mode. I suggest we begin by agreeing what tactical planning is: A tactic is a plan, procedure or expedient for promoting a desired end or result; “tactical” refers to arranging or ordering the details to achieve the goal.

Tactical planning is critical; we’d have one mess after another without it. Very often good tactical planning leads to a discussion of logistics and results in the assigning of roles and responsibilities and the development of a specific budget. But all of that is premature if the strategic planning has not been done.

So let’s go back to the PTA now and hold a strategic planning meeting instead of a tactical planning meeting. In fact, since this is merely one event in the year, how about we refer to the PTA’s three-year strategic plan to get us started? The meeting might go something like this:

·      One of our roles as the PTA board is to raise 5% of the school’s operating budget, per our strategic plan.

·      We have learned that three major fund raisers each school year seem to work for the PTA and the school’s families. We’ve traditionally done them in February, May and October. If we’re going to do a February fund raiser, now is the time to plan.

·      Specifically what has the principal told us she needs funding for in the next six months? How much does she need, and how will it be spent? (Answer: $5000 for new instructional software)

·      Okay, we’ve traditionally done family events to raise the money. Is that the direction we want to go this time? Is that the best way to raise this amount of money for this purpose?

·      We’ve agreed that a family event makes sense. Does February still make sense?

·      All right, now we’ve set a goal to raise $5000 for new instructional software through a family event in February.

o   What might that event look like?

o   Who would invest money in it other than our school’s parents? Can we invite the community?

o   What can we offer families and community members at this event in return for their money?

o   What program or agenda or activities would be justification for investing in instructional software?

Well, we’ll leave the PTA board room there and let them finish their planning. But I will bet they will not end up with a Harry Potter-themed book sale in the nearby book store with the PTA president dressed as Voldemort. Yes, they will have to do all the tactical planning, including agenda, venue, date, roles and responsibilities, budget, etc. However, I suggest that their tactical planning is more likely to lead them to an event that will actually raise $5000 for instructional software than the event they began to construct with no strategic goal in mind.

Whether you’re planning a marketing campaign or preparing print collateral for an upcoming trade show or designing your annual report, strategy should always come before tactics. Who do we hope will read this annual report? Why do we want them to read it? When are they most likely to be open to or interested in reading it? What conclusions do we hope they’ll draw after reading it? Questions like those, before we decide what the content will be or choose a color palette or request a print PO, will make the investment of time and money much more likely to pay dividends.

Strategy before tactics! You don’t have to spend a week strategizing about your annual report or your February fund raiser for instructional software, but you will want to devote the first 30 minutes of the planning meeting to a strategic outlook. And then all parties must be open to choosing tactics that support the strategic goals and objectives. No traditional 12-page annual report printed on 30# bond in black and white if that’s not going to get you to your strategic destination. And no tea and crumpets at the nearby bookstore if that is unlikely to raise $5000 for instructional software. Horse before cart.