Be Nimble, Jack: Nourishing Strategic Agility

by Morrie Warshawski, C2Arts Consultant

"God bless the flexible, because they never get bent out of shape."

Every nonprofit this last year of the decade has been living life in the fast lane - a daily version of Double Jeopardy where the categories keep changing, the stakes keep rising, and where there are a plethora of difficult questions with only a few right answers. How to survive in an environment that has become increasingly unpredictable; an environment where being nimble is no longer an option, but
rather a requirement?
Smart nonprofits have come to understand that they must engage in processes that help them achieve something I call "strategic agility," or "adaptive capacity" - the ability to successfully adapt to change.

The Hawai'i Community Foundation conducted a three-year study on this subject and discovered a set of characteristics and management systems that go hand-in-hand with adaptive capacity, including:
  • Self-awareness
  • Leadership
  • Responsiveness to constituents
  • Motivating staff and volunteers
  • Innovativeness
(Grantmakers in the Arts Reader, Fall 2002)

The most powerful tool I have found for significantly increasing strategic agility is the long range strategic planning process. A good planning effort brings all of the crucial elements for adaptive capacity into alignment by engaging in key questions and productive processes that usually include:

  • Data review of performance in all areas of operations
  • Internal self-assessment by board and staff
  • Benchmarking other comparable entities
  • Understanding the external environment - trends, opportunities and threats in major areas that affect the organization
  • Identification of organizational problem areas, strengths, and unique competitive advantage
  • Inclusion of board, staff and key stakeholders throughout the process
  • Canvassing of community stakeholders
  • Discussion of core values
  • Clarification of the mission
  • Creation of a dynamic vision for the future
  • Adoption of major future strategic directions
  • A short-term action plan that identifies clear outcomes and responsible parties
  • A process for evaluation
  • A formal process for keeping the plan alive
Not every organization can afford the time and energy for all the items on this list. For those, I recommend emphasis on clarifying the three "large issues" - core values, mission, and vision. If an organization can muster a consensual agreement on these three, then everything else will flow more smoothly. Core values color all the activities of the organization and are immutable. The mission lets staff, board and the community know why the organization exists, its raison d'etre. The vision is the dream that everyone in the organization shares for how things will look in the future if it is successful.

Until these three large items come into alignment there will be irreconcilable differences in the organization and an inability to make truly strategic decisions. To quote Goethe, "Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least." And that is the essence of being nimble - making sure all levels of the organization agree on where they want to go, and what things are more important than others. The results of planning should be a very practical and pragmatic set of directions that allows the organization to be nimble, agile, and strategic at the same time - and to achieve important things.

MORRIE WARSHAWSKI works with nonprofits that want to be more effective at reaching their goals. His work is informed by the core values of tolerance, thoughtfulness, transparency and creativity. You can always find him in cyberspace at

Related Resources:

Next month: 
Belinda Taylor, will take a fresh look at the RAND Model and its capacity for providing strategic agility in tough times. Former director of the California Arts Council's Arts Marketing Institute, Belinda is an arts marketing, branding and communications specialist for small to midsize organizations.