Whole System Strategic Planning

Whole System Strategic Planning

by Fred Darbonne

Because nonprofit organizations are so passionate about their mission, and often stretched to maintain their operations, it can be difficult to break away and climb to the “balcony” (Ronald Heifetz, 1998) for a fresh perspective.  From the balcony, leaders can look down on the “dance floor” and see how the parts interact to produce the whole guest experience.  There we can observe the patterns and interactions that we couldn’t see when immersed in the crowd below.  We see who is actively engaged, where people congregate and with whom, and who is alone or on the sidelines.  We might even notice how the refreshments are holding out, and where some room tidying might be necessary.  With this new frame of reference, a host will be able to make needed interventions to enhance the guest experience and the event’s success.

This systemic perspective is the advantage a whole system strategic planning process offers.  A whole system viewpoint enables leaders to see their organization as an interactive system, rather than focusing on the individual “problem” parts which can shortchange their overall strategic vision.  A whole system strategic planning process studies how the parts of the system are interdependent, and how they interact with each other to produce its state of affairs.  The interactions of the system, particularly of its human participants, create the organization culture – who we understand ourselves to be and “how we do things around here.”  It has been noted by many that the real job of leadership is managing the interactions of the parts of the system.  Managing interactions is at the heart of organizational development and change, as well as caring for the human impact of strategic planning.

For instance, the loyalty of clients is interdependent with the quality of their experience with the organization.  The support of donors and funders is interdependent with the value created by the nonprofit and the effectiveness of its services, as well as its success with its customers.  Organizational performance is interdependent with external factors such as the regulatory environment (tax reform is one example) and competition from other providers.  Performing artists typically have a web of relationships and interdependencies (think unions or their relationship history with management) requiring consideration when setting strategic priorities.  Otherwise, the backlash will blindside leaders who failed to account for the system’s interdependencies before acting.

A whole system approach in strategic planning uncovers critical relationships and helps planning teams identify the greatest levers for organizational change.  Strategic goals and action steps will be tied clearly to how accomplishing a strategic objective will dissolve a problem and create a new reality.  Rather than fixing or replacing a part, a systems perspective in strategic planning optimizes the health of the entire system, enhancing its resiliency and resources to serve its mission and work through obstacles.  Creating a desired organizational future requires this whole system approach.


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