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Strategising: from vision to action

Having developed a good understanding of the landscape and its stakeholders, and having formulated a vision for the landscape and what you want to achieve in 20 years’ time, the task ahead can be very daunting. This chapter focuses on how you can develop a strategy, and take your strategy to make an action plan: moving from vision to action.

Cover photo by Gabriela Hengeveld. Farmer Maikel Lara overlooking the combined zone from his natural zone.

Planning for twenty years into the future

After developing a shared vision, you know where you want to be in 20 years’ time. What we don’t know is how will we get there? Who do we need? What do we need to do? One thing we do know for certain is that it is impossible to plan for twenty years into the future. For one, because we will need to innovate which means that there is a lot that we don’t know yet. We have very limited information as a basis on which to plan. And second, because over such a long time period many of those things will change. Any plan that we make now will become irrelevant in a few years.

The understanding that for innovation we need to try new things. Some of those experiments will not lead us closer to our goals, in which case we should change. Some of them will, in which case we want to do more of that. Sometimes there are ‘happy little accidents’ that are vital but could not be foreseen. Multiple ways can all lead to Rome; meaning there is probably not one best/optimal pathway to reach the ultimate vision, many things will need to happen in order for the landscape to be transformed.

We therefore should not attempt to plan in a linear way. Rather we need to adopt an iterative way of planning; setting out rough high-level milestones for the long run, but only planning in detail for the foreseeable future, and building in the habit to reflect and re-evaluate on a regular basis. The importance to link this iterative planning to monitoring, evaluating and learning is evident.

Process for strategy development

A strategic plan needs to answer at least the following four questions:

  • Who are we?
  • Where are we now?
  • Where are we headed?
  • How will we get there?

Who are we?

As was discussed in the Partnership Building chapter no organisation can be everything to everyone. Every organisation has its limits, its strengths and its weaknesses. It makes sense for strategy development to focus on work that you know you are good at. Even if you feel that there is a strategic need to start doing something you are currently not good at, it is important to acknowledge that fact so that you can organise for getting better at it. Knowing who you are and why you exist is therefore of critical importance to good strategy development.

A great tool to do this is the SWOT analysis. SWOT is an acronym for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.

Strengths

internal factors that let the organisation excel

Opportunities

external factors that have the potential to boost the organisation

Weaknesses

internal factors that hinder the organisation in its operation

Threats

external factors that have the potential to inhibit the organisation

In case you are partnering with one or multiple organisations, it can be a nice exercise for everyone to do one for themselves, share & compare, and then make one for the partnership as a whole. It will become clear where each organisation can be complementary/supportive to others.

Where are we now?

The second question is meant to give the context for the strategy. What is the current situation in the landscape? What are major problems? What kind of solutions have people already tried? If you have already performed a Landscape and Stakeholder Analysis answering the ‘Where are we now?’ question should be straightforward.

It can help to think about the problems in the landscape in terms of the ‘problem tree’: the branches representing the symptoms you can see in the landscape, the trunk the big problem, and the roots being the root causes. Chances are you’ll be able to identify several big problems, which may mean it is more like a problem forest. Perhaps some have shared root systems.

Where are we headed?

The third component we add to build the strategy is the direction: where do we want to go from here? Answering this question is trying to find an answer to the end point of the journey, not yet on the journey itself. Where do we want the landscape to be at in twenty years from now? What does that future look like? Feel like? Sound like? Smell like?

If you have already developed your Shared Vision answering this question should be straightforward.

How will we get there?

Now we arrive at the exciting part: the journey that will bring us to the desired future. Most of the journey we cannot plan for yet, at least not in a lot of detail, but we can improve our understanding of what is needed along the way. Based on the three previous components (SWOT, L&SA, vision) you should have enough information to jointly discuss what your chosen strategy should be.

A surprisingly effective way to mapping out what is needed to get to the future is by first picturing yourself in that desired future situation and casting your eye back across the ‘past’ twenty years to the current moment, and then think about what the key moments or key changes were that needed to take place to get you there.

However you may do it, the essence is that you figure out what the key milestones are that will get you from the current situation to the desired future state. A topic of critical importance is understanding how your organisation needs to change in order to grow into and sustain that future. How will the organisational structure, the team, the finances, the operations need to change to enable you to do the work that is needed? Who do you need to collaborate with?

Theory of Change

A useful tool in this process can be developing a Theory of Change. A Theory of Change focuses on making insightful what is described as the ‘missing middle’ between what you do and achieving your goals. It uses so-called ‘impact pathways’ that logically link the ultimate aim (vision) to concrete activities, and helps make explicit certain assumptions you may have about how certain activities lead to certain outcomes.

The ToC is used often for Monitoring and Evaluation purposes, but can also be very useful for strategy development. In the latter case it is set up slightly differently from when using it for M&E; for strategy development, the reasoning starts at the ultimate aim and then works its way back to activities, for MEL it is the other way around. It goes without saying that once you have developed the ToC as part of your strategy development process, you can use it for MEL as well. More on how to develop a MEL plan in the chapter Impact measurement to communicate and increase your impact.

In its simplest form, developing a Theory of Change is answering a series of questions in a certain order:

  • Problem analysis: what are the problems and needs in the landscape that need to be tackled?
  • Prioritise: from these problems/needs, what do WE focus on
  • Document clearly why you prioritised some things over others
  • Which high over changes are needed to reach these objectives? Which stakeholders need to change their behaviour in what way (higher effects)
  • From these stakeholders, on which do we focus our efforts / interventions, and which do we not? (scope)
  • Document clearly how you prioritised
  • What is needed to create these behavioural changes? (lower effects). Research (to the extent possible) which possible intervention pathways have shown to indeed address the problems/needs you are trying to address
  • What do we need to do to implement these pathways in our context? (activity / output)
  • And who of the partners is doing what?
  • After this: Which critical assumptions can you discover? How will you address those in your strategy?

Some points of attention for developing a Theory of Change. First of all, it is important to have a good (neutral) facilitator for these conversations (yes, most of the development of the ToC happens in workshops with your organisation/all partner organisations as well as some external stakeholders).

A second important point of attention is documentation of choices, prioritisation and of assumptions. As said before, we are choosing consciously for an iterative approach which involves reflection, learning and adapting. If we haven’t kept track clearly of what decisions we made and why, it will be very difficult down the track to figure out if those decisions were correct or will need adaptation.

Finally, when setting goals, it is important to formulate them on the level of impact, not as an output. For example, the number of farmers trained in sustainable agriculture practices do not necessarily equate to those farmers actually employing those techniques, let alone the change you’re aiming for at a landscape level. If you choose your goal as output level (number of trained farmers) you are successful, but you may not be close to getting the impact you want.

Qualifying/prioritising opportunities

There is a lot we could do, but because only limited time and resources are available, it is important to make clear choices. To help provide a framework for these choices, we present the framework for ‘qualifying’ opportunities developed by ProSocial World. When your ‘why’ is in place (why do we exist, see Partnership Building chapter [link]), you can rate (‘qualify’) different opportunities as to how they fit with both your vision and capabilities. You can change both the factors in the vision and capability to see how they fit in with your case.

Fit for Vision

The first step involves comparing the possible opportunities with the vision you have created. Define the criteria you will be using for this comparison. In your local sphere of influence, ask, “What would it look like if we had a positive impact?” These are your criteria for success. They need to be observable or measurable. Those put forward can be evaluated for their ‘fit with vision’ according to these criteria. Defining these criteria for success allows you to decide which will be the best projects to pursue.

Fit for Capability

Once you have decided which opportunities are the best in terms of their ‘fit with vision’, the next step is to ask, “Do we have the capability?”. The SWOT analysis mentioned earlier can be used as a yardstick for this step. If a potential project is not ‘fit for capability’, no matter how attractive it is in terms of ‘fit with vision’, it is not a good idea to pursue it because you will be setting yourself and others up to fail.

Another additional framing that might help in figuring out which activities should have priority, think of the following six key principles:

  • Holistic solutions – think back of the problem tree: which opportunities focus on the root causes, which on the symptoms?
  • Long-term commitment – it can take a long time (meaning if some things need to be set in motion we better do it sooner than later), but also we have time. Meaning we don’t have to jump on every opportunity now, things will be there to do in a few years’ time too. Basically: play the long game
  • Trust is key – this work is built on human relationships, and human relationships only function when there is trust. How can you build trust to enable your work? How will your choices affect the trust in you?
  • Think big, start small, act now – landscape restoration consists of slow processes, to keep the inspiration high it is important to create some tangible short term results while working on the bigger outcomes that take more time to realise. What small thing could you literally do next week that will already get us a tiny bit closer to our goal?
  • Build on what is already there – create ownership and connections and make use of/strengthen existing initiatives rather than setting up something completely new from scratch
  • Go where the energy is – just another way of saying to work with the willing first. Most people are initially resistant to change. Rather than trying to convince them it can be a more effective approach to work first with those who are open to change and create showcases with them, that will then help entice others to join in.

Moving from strategy to action planning

With the Theory of Change and prioritisation of opportunities in place, putting the strategy plan together should be straightforward. The final step is to start allocating resources and planning major milestones over time. Again, it is impossible to plan twenty years into the future in detail, so keep the strategy plan high level. Where we can go into detail is in the action plan.

The action plan is a concrete plan for the foreseeable future, i.e. usually 1-3 years. Although we still want to remain adaptable, for this period we can oversee with reasonable confidence what is likely to happen and we can make a more detailed planning. The process of putting an action plan together is not much different from putting together a project plan, save for the fact that organisational development and governance should receive specific attention in the action plan.

  • Break the milestone(s) for the first 1-3 years up into smaller (SMART) goals
  • Identify tasks (use a Work Breakdown Structure if useful)
  • Allocate resources (financial, human, et cetera)
  • Prioritise and plan
  • Plan organisational development, partnership governance, and HR
  • Document and monitor during the period (year)

Organising for the long term in short-term cycles

We look at large-scale landscape restoration as an iterative process: a programme of activities that is set up as a series of iterations of the design cycle. The design cycle helps to break up the audacious long-term goal into clear bite-sized chunks and allows for flexibility to change directions under changing circumstances. Over the course of a year there can be one – or even several – iterations of the cycle, and as such, together with our partners, we keep reflecting, learning and adapting. Each iteration focuses on a clear, bite-sized piece of the big long-term goal, which helps us to get into ‘action mode’. The practical way in which we try to implement this iterative nature is to build shorter-term planning cycles into the long-term vision and process.

What have you learned from this module? Let us know in the comments!

This chapter was written by Bas van Dijk.

"However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results."

Sir Winston Churchill

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