By Todd Davidson, Vice President of Programs
A think tank exists to solve problems in society. But when advocating for a solution, an organization may face opposition, and surprises will arise, thwarting its carefully laid, step-by-step plans.
To be successful, you cannot rely on static plans. You need a strategy. Better strategy will empower you to attain more wins, while saving time, money, and energy for your next win.
Strategy is the use of capabilities to achieve an objective, considering factors in the environment. This definition leads us to the “DNA of strategy,” or the three elements that, together, make up strategy: objective, environment, and capabilities.
Good strategy identifies a logical connection between a realistic objective, the environment, and the limited capabilities available. The best strategy achieves the highest attainable objective, given the particular capabilities and environment. Bad strategies aim to achieve unrealistic objectives, given inherently limited capabilities and an uncertain environment.
Whether a strategy is good or bad hinges on practitioners’ understanding of capabilities, environment, and objectives, as well as how the three parts are connected. So, much of strategy is just making sense of these three parts. This guide will walk you through these three parts to help you assess the strategic landscape and develop a quality strategy.
Your objective is a particular change you, as a think tank advocate, seek to make. Organizations have a hierarchy of objectives, ranging from high-level goals, such as a vision, to specific policy wins to tactical aims, such as moving audiences or completing projects and tasks. Here are some examples of objectives at different levels:
The DNA of Strategy framework works for any of these levels. The first step is to draft an objective. Once you’ve formulated your objective, hold it loosely, as you may need to change it depending on your analysis of your capabilities and environment.
The environment is the area in which you operate to achieve your objectives. It includes societal forces, audiences, policymakers, and institutions.
The relevant environment varies widely depending on your objective. If your objective includes a policy change, your relevant environment includes the policy-making processes (e.g., the legislative process), the various policymakers, and those who influence policymakers. If your objective is to motivate an audience, your environment includes the channels necessary to reach that audience, the issues that affect that audience, and a strong understanding of the audience’s needs and wants.
Once you identify your environment, you scan your environment for opportunities, obstacles, and threats. By seizing opportunities, you achieve your objective with less effort. Obstacles are hindrances that favor the status quo. Threats seek to undermine your entire strategy or even organization. A good strategy will account for all three variables.
Capabilities are the tools, actions, teams, and anything else you control. Use them to influence or navigate your environment to achieve your objectives.
For think tanks and state-based advocacy organizations, there is a growing catalog of potential capabilities, including:
As with the environment, your objective will determine which of your capabilities are relevant. For example, if your objective is policy change, you will be employing virtually all your capabilities—including research, communications, marketing, government affairs, coalitions, grassroots, and other advocacy capabilities you may have. If your objective is to activate 5,000 constituents, you will zero in on capabilities that reach and motivate those constituents, such as digital marketing and earned media.
There’s an important caveat for capabilities: Many capabilities on the list above come with significant legal compliance considerations. It’s always a good idea for a state think tank or advocacy organization to have legal counsel on hand to advise on the appropriate use or boundaries of certain capabilities.
A strategy is how you use your capabilities to achieve your objective, considering your environment.
Keep in mind that for every objective, you have multiple strategies you could pursue. Good strategies align your capabilities with the opportunities, obstacles, and threats you identify in your environment. The best strategies reinforce each other rather than working against each other.
For example, your government affairs and marketing strategies should be aligned. It’s counterproductive to have an organization’s government affairs arm engaging a lawmaker, while the organization’s marketing strategy attacks that same lawmaker. Conversely, a well-crafted marketing strategy with an effective message can reinforce your government affairs strategy by increasing the political benefits of advancing your policy.
Our DNA of Strategy Worksheet takes the guesswork out of mapping your own objectives, environments, and capabilities. Download a copy to use for your personal planning, with your team, or as a framework for developing or updating your next organizational strategy.