What Woody Allen Can Teach Not-For-Profits About Strategic Planning?

By Chris Gandy

While strategic planning discussions around many not-for-profit board tables centre on expanding their services across the city, state, country and planet, I sense a change in the wind. More and more boards that I seem to be dealing with are saying “We want to be serving our communities well into the future. To do this we need a low-risk long-term sustainability plan”.

New York typically provides the back drop for many Woody Allen movies
New York typically provides the back drop for many Woody Allen movies

Having seen some ambitious not-for-profit growth plans crash and burn of late, this long-term sustainability approach has been on my radar for a while now and my interest was further stimulated by a recent article in The Wall Street Journal. The interesting piece, entitled “How Woody Allen Sees It” talks about not only Allen the person but also his film making strategy. As I read on it became clear that the 79 year old’s 48 movie achievement can be attributed in no small way to his “low-risk long term sustainability plan”.

While it appears Allen’s successfully formula has evolved rather than resulted from an inspirational strategic thinking session at the commencement of this career, this is no way diminishes the relevance of the lessons not-for-profit leaders can learn from him. These include:

Finding your passion and make all else fit around this. – For Woody Allen creative control is king. To gain this control he makes movies that are so inexpensive that studios give him virtual carte blanch because they are comparatively low-risk compared to the typical movies made today.

Being detached and prepared to abandon an unsuccessful approach – As a colleague explained in the article “He doesn’t get too attached to any one idea. He’ll want someone, and if it doesn’t work out, he’ll just pick himself up and go on to someone else.”

Being realistic and focusing on achieving the achievable – Allen explains “…it’s very therapeutic to get up and think, can I get this actor, does my third act work? All these solvable problems that are delightful puzzles, as opposed to the great puzzles of life that are unsolvable, or that have very bad solutions. So I get pleasure from doing this. It’s my version of basket weaving.”

Making the balance sheet work by being able to access high quality resources at relatively low-cost. – Allen has successfully created a reputation and working environment that has A-list actors falling over themselves to work at union rates. Also his film making processes are repeatable and relatively cost-effective.

Developing a unique approach. Repeating it, improving  it, perfecting it until it becomes your distinct brand – Over time the Allen brand has      become synonymous with so many distinct themes from New York backdrops, neurotic characters, white type on black opening titles rolling on old jazz to classical music to the of  use single, long shots in all his movies.

Devising methods to get greater value from your key resources – Allen famously gives actors little direction but encourages them to improvise and adapt dialogue in the script.

Accepting the realities of a low-risk approach – As Allen says “I’m not in the hit-flop business. I make a film and if it’s a big hit it’s not  going to do anything special for me. If it’s a disaster it won’t ruin anything, because I’ll already be working on the next. The people who play  the hit-flop game suffer a lot when they have the flops. I don’t, but then I don’t get the highs either.”

Whether he is your “cup of tea” or not, leaders of cause-based organisations with ambitions of still serving their communities in another 50 years’ time could do a lot worse than watching a Woody Allen and reflecting on how he does it.

About the Author: Chris Gandy MAPS is a Director of Cause and Effective. You can learn more about what Chris and his colleagues do here. You can also follow him on Twitter. If you would like to guest post on B-Cause, check out the guidelines here.

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