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6 Clues from Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express to Help Nonprofits Solve the Mystery of Strategic Planning

Watching movies has taken on a new aspect for me since blogging this year on what we might observe in various films and books about the application of strategic planning and leadership principles. Recently, I watched the latest version of Murder on the Orient Express with my wife and youngest boy (who loved it so much he went to the local public library the next day to check out the book). I will try not to be a spoiler, in case you have never read the book or seen the movie. Suffice to say that the plot involves a murder on a stranded train, the world’s most eminent detective (Hercule Poirot), and a train full of suspects.

As the detective endeavors to solve the mystery in this classic case of “Who dunnit,” we, the audience, see bits and pieces of the suspects’ past lives, allowing us to formulate our own list of most suspicious.

So, what does all of this have to do with strategic planning for nonprofit agencies? As it turns out, plenty. Strategic planning is quite literally the solving of a mystery (just not a murder mystery). In this movie, the mystery involves an event from the recent past (the murder) and figuring out who the murderer is and how he/she did it. In strategic planning, the mystery involves determining a future aspiration and figuring out how to you are going to “dunnit.”

The following list involves skills, techniques and characteristics required to unravel a mystery, whether you are a homicide detective or a nonprofit executive director:

  1. Faith: You must first believe that a solution exists. Nothing happens without faith in the possible outcome. If the detective did not believe he could solve the mystery of the murder, he would have continued with his plans for a long-overdue vacation. On a strategic planning level, too many executive directors and boards do not believe that a strategic planning session is worth their time and effort. For many, working with a strategic planning facilitator will rank near the top of their lists right along with a visit to a proctologist. After all, only a small percentage of goals set in strategic planning sessions are ever attained. So if that were your mindset, you would seem justified in your belief that strategic planning is a waste of money. Unfortunately, that is similar to saying that football coaches waste their time putting together a game plan. After all, much of what the other time might do can nullify many of the plans. In the end, having a strategic plan provides directions, motivation and a path to success. If you don’t believe that, ask other executive directors for their experience and see what they say.
  2. An open mind: Keep an open mind to all possible solutions. Stop relying on old stereotypes to inform and, worse, confirm, your opinions. Poirot struggles throughout the film to identify motives based on his knowledge of the individual and sometimes must fight the stereotypes of the person’s employment, ethnicity and even legal status. With regard to strategic planning, one of the keys to success is to NOT go into the session with a pre-set list of goals and objectives. Having a working list of ideas is one thing. Being determined to have your agenda accepted by others is called intransigence and will derail the planning process. If you can’t trust your board and staff colleagues to provide new ideas and share creative insight into possible successful strategies, you likely lack faith in your colleagues or in yourself. Trust the process, and trust your team.
  3. Just the facts: When confronted with facts in a case, we often struggle to process them because we bring preconceptions of reality with us. Like the stereotypes mentioned earlier, these preconceptions often limit our vision of possibilities. We rules out certain ideas because, based on our limited experience, we accept them as impossibilities. Poirot regularly helped his fellow train passengers to see past such barriers. When going through the strategic planning process, we need to develop a mentality of possibilities. It is the responsibility of the facilitator to help the strategic planning corp build a mountain of choices before leading the group through the process of filtering out the least effective and most wasteful options. The former process is based on creating all possible alternatives, while the latter process is based upon pushing each option through a filter of facts. Is this option legal? How many staff members would it require? Do we have the training needed? What are the compliance issues needing to be addressed? What will the cost be?
  4. Pay attention to details: In a murder mystery, a knife wound is never as simple as a knife wound. It can hold the key to all questions. In your nonprofit, do you look for details in failed programs and projects? If you are not asking questions that get at the detailed reasons for failure, you deny yourself the opportunity to solve future dilemmas and achieve success.
  5. Strategic Partnerships with Todd R. Christensen ConsultingForm strategic partnerships: Critical thinking viewers may be surprised that the world’s foremost detective (one who seeks truth) willingly befriends a self-proclaimed philanderer of questionable morals. However, the two have a history, and the detective had learned to trust his salty friend. In the nonprofit community, there are plenty of organizations that appear, well, perhaps not seedy but sometimes a bit undesirable to work with. It may be their executive director is abrasive, or their charitable purpose does not seem charitable enough. Such judgments can stymie our progress and strategic vision. We need to remain open to potential partnerships with those who are true to their stated mission and can be valuable resources to our own, rather than trying to force others into a preconceived notion of the partner we need. In other words, take advantage of a variety of potential partnerships, so long as you do not go into them with rose-colored glasses.
  6. Be Tenaciously Focused in Pursuit of Your Mission: When the murder occurred on the train, Poirot was on his way home after solving another important crime. He was tired and looking forward to a well-deserved, peaceful rest. Circumstances placed before him an opportunity to use his highly developed talents, and his drive for truth would not allow him to remain still. In the nonprofit world, it seems that leaders tend to have an extra measure of passion for what they do. So, when opportunities arise to increase their potential for doing good, they are driven to investigate. Be careful not to let such a drive get you off track. Remain true to your mission. This is where a well-honed strategic plan, which involves clearly identified organizational values, mission, vision statement, goals, tactics and thoughtful organizational alignment will act as a locomotive to pull your nonprofit up hills, through tunnels and toward your desired destination.

There. We got through this without, I believe, a spoiler of the book or movie. It should be clear, though, what the end result of a strategic planning session will be. And knowing what those expectations are should not kill your desire to hold one but, on the contrary, build the steam to power you to organize your next planning meeting. Related posts include

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