Atzimba Baltazar Macías and Manuela Garza Ascencio of Colectivo META write about their strategic planning work with civil society organizations in Mexico, including MacArthur grantees.
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Strategic thinking helps an organization reflect critically about itself and its work: its mission; what it seeks to change over the short- and long-terms; how it contributes concretely to achieving such change; the value its work brings; what distinguishes it from other organizations; and the most efficient and effective way to achieve its objectives.
Consider the following definition of “strategy” from the Spanish Royal Academy:
Being strategic involves being able to make the best decision given existing conditions and using the tools available. We also like to emphasize the use of "art" in this definition. It suggests being strategic requires innovation, creation, and doing things in a different way from other organizations.
We believe strategic thinking is a fundamental part of a successful organization, and that is why we work with civil society organizations in Mexico to hone this skill. Organizations that dedicate time to strategic reflection are able to articulate their identity and purpose clearly and forcefully. Furthermore, organizations that devote time to these processes not only achieve their objectives, but are also better prepared to respond to changes in the context in which they work.
Strategic thinking requires discipline and practice. Just as no person is born an expert in any given subject, no organization is born strategic. Strategy must be cultivated. It also requires that the leadership within the organization—not just directors, but also managers—are open to receiving criticism and are honest about their work.
These processes are difficult because they question the organization itself, its objectives, and capabilities. The organization must be open to admitting mistakes and learning from them. It must have the willingness to be questioned and to negotiate with points of view different from its own. It forces us to leave our comfort zones and, in extreme cases, to stop doing what has been done for years, redesign initiatives, and even, if need be, to close.
Strategic reflection strengthens leadership, develops team capacity, and facilitates transitions. It allows for better responses to changes and improves an organization’s relationships with others.
We recently joined another organization in a process of strategic reflection during which the team learned to review its work, examine its challenges and opportunities, and analyze its strengths and weaknesses. After a year, we collaborated with this organization again and observed notable changes. Based on the strategic objectives it set, it developed work plans that served as guides to meet its goals. The strategic objectives also provided useful tools for monitoring and evaluating its activities.
We saw that the leadership of the organization improved its management and strategic reflection capacities. Leadership’s contributions to the institutional objectives were deeper, more purposeful, and made with greater clarity. In general, there was less stress, better coordination, and more clarity about the work of the organization.
Investing in activities that build a stronger institution is often seen as a luxury that only large organizations can afford, or as a capability that donors sometimes take for granted. It should, however, be an essential part of the day-to-day work of organizations and should be more strongly supported by donors. An organization that thinks strategically is an organization capable of effective action. In these times of change, that ability has ceased to be a luxury: it is now a necessity.
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