War Games and Other Exercises in Strategic Planning

What would a totally new model for your mission look like?

It’s a question every nonprofit executive should ask—especially those dependent on government funding. Given various trends that threaten existing funding sources, the organizations that survive will be the ones that can reinvent themselves.

I increasingly take on situations that demand this kind of change, and it’s probably my favorite type of project. But I am also aware that the need for this work is pervasive in our sector—and paradoxically, the need is especially intense among organizations that don’t have the financial resources to hire outside consultants.

So how does reinvention happen when you have to figure it out all by yourself—and on a string shoe budget?

Below are some tools that can help you get started. The list is not comprehensive list or presented as a step-by-step playbook; rather, think of it as an invitation to take some experimental first steps. For many in the social sector, the time to reinvent is now.


Any change at your organization will require practical and creative input from your team. There is an art to leading truly helpful “brainstorming sessions”—versus the kind of fruitless discussions that all of us have endured at one point or another. Scott Berkun is the guru on brainstorming that I most respect—read his take on the big questions you need to answer before you embark on brainstorming and on the nuts and bolts of leading a brainstorming meeting (the best guide I’ve ever read).

Make your vision visual

For many individuals and for almost all groups, it is far more powerful to see a new model than to read about it. Like brainstorming, there is an entire art form to visually mapping ideas in a way that facilitates group invention. One very sophisticated example conducted by the Boston Consulting Group promotes nonprofit medical innovation. Other nonprofits have used much simpler—but effective—visual tools to envision new partnerships. You can also try using mind mapping for basic meetings.

Get Out More Often

Inventions are rarely—if ever—the sudden creation of something brand-new, out of thin air. They usually come about when two existing ideas come together to create a new idea. Steven Johnson’s book “Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation” is a fascinating account of this dynamic. One of the biggest barriers to nonprofit innovation is the sector’s tendency to remain insular. Johnson’s book offers some very practical recommendations on how to open yourself up to thoughts and ideas that come from subject matters very different than your own mission..

Play “war games”

The US military has long realized that conflicts—even artificially created ones—can breed creativity. Some of the biggest reinventions in its practice—such as armored formations or aerial bombardment of naval ships—stemmed from war games. It can be very difficult for an old model to relinquish its hold in people’s minds unless it is vigorously attacked by competition.

The job of a leader with a reinvention mandate is to engender that creative conflict. Consider giving a particularly creative person the assignment of building a business model for a theoretical rival agency. And then invite an outside person to judge a head-to-head contest. Or create your own internal competition for the most radical ideas around blowing up your organization and starting anew. Learn more about the concept of creative competition and get more ideas on how to structure them within your organization.

Feel frustrated

 If you’re feeling frustrated about how difficult change is, take heart: You’ve actually arrived at a key stage in the innovation process. Studies on how people create new models invariably point out that a sense of feeling stymied is a key precursor to breakthrough innovation.  As this video shows, frustration can push leaders to pursue even more radical new ideas. 

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