State Policy Network
Strategic Thinking: Why understanding driver trends is a key to organizational success

By Todd Davidson, Senior Director of Strategic Development, State Policy Network

Welcome to SPN’s Strategic Thinking series, a regular feature covering how-tos and tools for strategic planning that every nonprofit leader and professional should know to achieve success.

Every job requires us to achieve objectives in the face of uncertainty, change, and some type of competition. Strategy is how you use your means—the things within your control—to achieve your objectives in the midst of factors you can’t control. Better strategy will empower you to attain more wins in less time and conserve energy, time, and resources for your next endeavor.

At the core of good strategy is the skill of strategic thinking. High-quality strategic thinking involves considering and drawing connections across four dimensions:

When individuals and teams embrace it, strategic thinking can unlock game-changing innovation, collaboration, and focus.

Identifying driver trends can help you understand and monitor the external environment faster

There are many factors in the world that are outside our control, yet they still affect our endeavors. These forces can help us, hurt us, or be a neutral element in the background. The first dimension of strategic thinking—your environment—is all about grasping external forces and understanding how they might impact your efforts for better or worse.

In strategic thinking, one staple exercise is to survey political, economic, social, and technological trends that are altering the world before our eyes. Doing so gives us a sharper understanding of how the world is changing, and with that understanding, we can position our organizations to ride the wave of those trends, acquiring a strategic advantage that leads to policy wins.   

This exercise can quickly overwhelm a team because of the sheer volume of trends that exist. The key to making sense of trends is to discern which trends shape other trends. We call these drivers and knowing the drivers shaping your state and its policymaking environment can position your organization to have a credible, influential seat at the table when it comes to crafting solutions that strengthen communities and improve lives.  

Three levels of driver trends matter for your organization’s strategies


These trends include changes in natural resources, demographics, and technology. Think of them as society’s tectonic plates: When they shift, everything on top of them shifts. Most often they shift slowly, but when they do shift quickly there is major disruptive change. 


These trends are changes in politics, economics, culture, and intellectual ideas. Think of these drivers as water: They can move fast and cause major disruptions. They can move slowly and shape landmasses around them. They can swing back and forth, speed up, or slow down.


These drivers shape how the market moves and reacts to worldwide and societal changes. Think of them as the animals that walk or swim on the environment created by tectonic plates and water. Animals shape the behavior of smaller animals in both competition and cooperation. Demands of Customers and investors shape business action. Rivals vie for market share and have to outmaneuver each other. 

Notice how these driving trends relate to one another, and you can map the landscape.

Now, let’s bring our various examples together to see how identifying these driver trends leads to a better understanding of the environment in which our organizations operate.

Beginning in the 1990s the digital brought forth an information tsunami (Worldwide-tech). No longer could elites hide their failures behind a monopoly on information. The exposure to elite failure after elite failure enraged portions of the public who then began to revolt in a series of protests from the Arab Spring, Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, the indignados, Yellow Vests, and more (societal and political). These movements brought forth a wave of populist leaders. Think tanks could no longer cozy up to the establishment and expect their ideas to turn into policy. The most successful think tanks adapted; they built their own audiences instead of relying on solely on third-party platforms (market—think tanks). They positioned themselves to speak both to the public and to the elites.

This clarity has an effect of slowing the world around you. It will help you anticipate changes and see the forces shaping the environment you operate in. You can then develop strategies to position your organization to gain a strategic advantage over your competition and to work more effectively with leaders, communities, and partners in your state. 

Exercise: Brainstorm Driver Trends for Your State

One of the most powerful ways to accelerate your organization’s relevance and success is to regularly assess the driver trends in your own state. How are worldwide, societal, and market trends affecting your state and local communities? How could those realities inform or shape your organization’s priorities?

Download a copy of SPN’s Trends Worksheet to practice considering these trends with your team or organization.

Categories: Strategy
Organization: State Policy Network
Professional Topics: Strategy