Beware Of Planning Yourself Into a Box

How did I get into the business of helping nonprofit boards and CEOs build their leadership capacity? This is the first question Cheryl Ronk, President of the Michigan Society of Association Executives, asked me to think about in preparation for last week’s interview on her Michigan Business Network radio show. Thinking about that question the day before the show, I realized that what had originally gotten me started on the road that eventually led to my founding Doug Eadie & Company some 25 years ago had nothing to do with formal planning. Indeed, it was one of those classic cases of a well-laid plan going awry, as I explained in the opening segment of Cheryl’s show. In a nutshell, in November of my senior year at the University of Illinois–Champaign, I was walking through the student center. At that point my strategy was firm, my course was set. I would begin law school the following year, and with hard work I’d be admitted to the Illinois Bar in four years or so. I don’t recall any misgivings; in fact, it felt great to have put agonizing about the future behind me. Then, 15 or 20 feet after passing a Peace Corps recruiting booth on my walk through the center, I stopped, turned around and went back. I explained to the gal at the booth that I really wasn’t very handy with my hands – couldn’t imagine building a school or digging a well – but if the Peace Corps needed teachers, I’d definitely apply. So much for law school! I spent the summer following graduation at UCLA, training to be a Peace Corps teacher, and that September began three wonderful years teaching ancient history and English as a second language at Tafari Makonnen Secondary School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Returning to the States, I earned an MS in management and began a 15-year stint as a nonprofit and public executive that laid the foundation for my consulting career. My pivotal decision many years ago at Illinois was, it seems to me, the result of twin forces at work: an out-of-the-blue jolt of awareness that I’d planned myself into a box that had far more to do with head than heart, and the temerity to go for an opportunity to escape that box. I know that it’s a bit of a stretch to generalize from my personal experience to nonprofit leadership and management, but I can tell you that over the years I’ve seen countless organizations meticulously plan themselves into boxes and miss precious opportunities to grow – to broaden their missions and diversify their services and revenue streams. In fact, what we call “strategic” planning is, in my experience, more often than not so control-focused that it virtually guarantees staying well within the box, achieving comfort and seeming security at the expense of creative change. So the challenge for us CEOs is to ensure that before we immerse ourselves in detailed, control-focused planning we spend significant time at the open end of the planning “funnel,” where we can freely brainstorm opportunities for creative change and growth and, in the context of a deep understanding of our organizational strengths and weaknesses, select at least a few truly new – out of the box – opportunities to pursue. Then and only then does it make sense to be about the business of detailed strategy formulation. I’d love to hear our readers’ experiences in helping their organizations break out of the box.

By the way, if you’d like to hear Cheryl’s radio interview with me, here’s the link: http://www.michiganbusinessnetwork.com/blog/governance-expert-perspectiv....