I briefly alluded to some of my strategic process in my last post. I want to make it clear that my host organization, SLC-IT, has been thinking and acting strategically for years, quite effectively, in fact. At first it was difficult for me to see this because (1) I didn’t understand the background context of life in Ladakh and therefore could not see the strategic intent of many actions, and (2) their strategies are informal and not written down or codified. In other words, SLC-IT is very much a product of its environment, an environment that has thrived for hundreds of years on mutual understanding and a relatively high degree of cultural homogeneity. It’s also an environment that discourages getting too attached to details, which unfortunately is where formal strategic work is done.
However, SLC-IT is now also a product of the globalized 21st century, and more specifically to the Development and Conservation sectors in India. The mere fact that I am here, working for them, is testament to that fact. With that new terrain comes an entirely new set of strategic demands, and with those demands comes a level of uncertainty and opportunity that the organization has never before seen. I am hoping that my involvement helps them take advantage of these opportunities while perhaps avoiding the common traps, at least the traps of which I know.
Back at our Midpoint Conference, some of my co-Fellows and I isolated some of the impediments to creating and following through on good strategy. I’d like to take another look at those “strategy traps.”
1. NGOs Beholden to Funding
The problem of being responsible to donors is not unique to my organization. Far from it, it’s a problem of the entire NGO industry. (It’s also not necessarily a negative thing, but it can be.) I alluded to some of my frustrations with the donor-executor model in this post, and those frustrations still stand. My complaint is that there is just too much room for donors to force their will into the eventual service delivery. My complaint is that this power imbalance divorces small groups (like my hosts) from what they do best – working with their communities. I’m not saying this is the case with SLC-IT, but in those instances where donors are heavy-handed, it becomes more and more unlikely that homegrown strategies will be implemented effectively, if at all.
2. The Inertia Problem
All organizations have some inertia, and that’s good. Inertia is what keeps an organization on track, true to its mission and vision and values, and ideally on track to perform stated tasks. Inertia is bad when it keeps an organization from changing, developing, and innovating when it should. As it pertains to strategy, Inertia usually surfaces with sayings like “But we’ve always done it this way!” or “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” My point is not that all change is good or desirable. Changing is sometimes good. Staying the same is also sometimes good. Strategy is knowing the difference.
3. Potentially Divorced from Reality
This is not such an issue at small organizations, from what I’ve noticed, but the bigger a group gets, the more likely it is to fall into this trap. The more layers of organization you add, the more likely a group is to become divorced from what’s actually going on “on the ground.”
While I am the first to be critical of board-room-style strategy sessions, I believe that work is important. It just needs to be firmly rooted in reality – preferably data-driven reality. In Development, this means that the board-room-style strategy needs to be linked directly to the self-stated needs of the poor. I wrote a little bit about my experience with SLC-IT back in December, conducting a workshop in a small Ladakhi village to find out what they want to change about their community, here. That experience taught me that informal strategy happens all the time, whenever concerned people attempt to solve their own problems. Formal strategy can help these processes reach maturity and interlink them with resources that NGOs possess.
4. Implementation Barrier
Simply put, strategy is only as good as the implementation that follows. While I do believe that some strategic-thinking exercises are useful in themselves for clarifying purpose and building group morale, I also believe that the real importance of strategy is the results it achieves. If strategists do not do the extra work to determine how their strategies will be implemented, those strategies have no teeth. I have seen this at least a few times, when organizations rush to prove their strategic capacity without thinking about how the rubber will meet the road. Similarly, monitoring and evaluation plans (critical elements for the information feedback loop necessary for good strategy) are usually left out at the beginning stages. Paying close attention to those things goes hand in hand with paying attention to overcoming the implementation barrier.
5. The Costs
Developing, planning, codifying, and executing good strategy has costs. These costs, in small organizations, seem to be most keenly felt on the human resources side. In a small group like SLC-IT, there’s no practical way to devolve formal strategy from the work of the executive. In this case, that’s one person. And that’s just a lot of seemingly-extra work for one person to do. In a case like this, I have tried to lift a little bit of that burden, but the reality is that it’s a challenge to prove the worth of written strategy when an organization has so many competing needs. It seems high-brow and nit-picky. Changing those perceptions takes time, and it’s up to the group to decide how they want to proceed. Other costs include time, funds, and opportunities lost. I’m convinced those costs are small compared to benefits, but it’s not always easy to make that case.
Aside from maintaining constant awareness of these “strategy traps,” I don’t have any concrete solutions. The traps exist as part of how NGO’s operate in the modern day, and until we change that system, the traps will remain. However, I can’t overstate the importance of strong leadership: the will of the executive(s) is really important. Leaders define the direction of their organizations and are responsible for how well they stay on track. Further, I believe strategic thinking and strategic planning are part of the leadership landscape in the modern day. There is no way around it.
Allow me to end by sharing a cool story from my host organization that illustrates good strategy in action. Since before I arrived in September, SLC-IT was attempting to revise how visitors interact with its Himalayan Homestays program. This conversation has taken myriad forms since I arrived, but one of the things that SLC-IT leadership and I recognized many months ago was the fact that there was not enough reliability in the reservations system. As Himalayan Homestays grows in accordance with tourist demand, this reliability will become more and more important.
SLC-IT leadership and I decided what the goal would be: “Revitalize Himalayan Homestays program.” As far as goals go, this was a perfect example: broad, open to some interpretation, and with a mind to the future. (Critically, all the relevant employees at SLC-IT were also on board.) Then, we decided what some of the relevant strategies would be: “Expand marketing,” “Reconfigure tourist distribution system,” “Monitor and publicize the usage of Community Conservation Funds,” and finally “Reintroduce/Reconfigure voucher system.” When I think of strategy, I think of “the means by which goals are achieved.” In a case like this, where the difference may not seem important, I think it’s better to ask “How?” than to ask “What?”
Long story short, SLC-IT leadership moved forward with the last of those strategies recently. They convened a large workshop among tour guides and travel agents here in Leh (critical stakeholders in tourism) and began the sometimes-difficult task of building and maintaining strategic relationships with them. Unsurprisingly, these for-profit stakeholders often have their own sets of priorities, so reintroducing the new-and-improved voucher system was not a simple act. In the end, the travel agents and tour guides asked to be given in-depth tours of the areas to which they would be sending tourists. This was a very reasonable request, so SLC-IT arranged the logistics.
I had the good fortune to be able to tag along the day that the travel agents interacted with Homestay operators. What impressed me the most was that the travel agents, for the most part, were highly interested in what measures each individual homeowner had taken to make their homes amenable to tourists. The travel agents themselves are Ladakhis who have taken advantage of the tourism boom, so they have a unique perspective. They straddle the past and the present, living examples of the interface between tradition and mainstream development. In other words, they are valuable partners, strategically speaking, and their involvement will facilitate the goals SLC-IT and I have outlined. I’m excited to see what comes of their involvement!