impact as north star


How to Reverse-Engineer Your Organization’s Impact on the World

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Strategic Planning Working Backwards from Future Impact

In a prior post, I touched on the concept of impact as one of two foundational drivers for how we approach strategic planning for ourselves and for our clients, in order to address the rapidly changing world we live in today. (The other was our emphasis on being foresight-driven, grounding all planning initiatives in where the world is going and identifying emerging paths to success, which is closely tied to impact.)

A sea change has occurred over the last couple of decades, perhaps one that has gone unnoticed by many…and certainly under-addressed by a great deal of companies and leaders. This shift is related to the way consumers, employees, and the world at large find inspiration and motivation — whether to purchase, where to work, or whom to support — and how that differs from generations prior.

How organizations adopt and adapt to this shift in people’s actions and belief systems could very well represent the Great Divide(r) between entities that thrive and those that merely survive in this modern competitive landscape.

In the strategic planning we do with brands and nonprofits alike, we have taken a decidedly different approach from most traditional strategic planning. It’s a methodology that starts in the distant future and works backwards to the present day. But in this approach, the vision of the future is not only about the size of the organization and the financial metrics that have long guided leadership’s mission and planning.

Instead, we start with something more motivational, more aspirational, and ultimately more effectual: impact.

Why Start with Impact?

We’ve all felt the growing groundswell of concern around environmental challenges, social responsibility, and the role of organizations in bettering the world. You’ve likely noticed this shift within your own workforce, family, friends, and network. In reality, this trend has been evolving for decades. All the way back in 1994, a movement to look beyond (just) sales and profit metrics got a name: Triple Bottom Line, or TBL. Penned by author John Elkington, TBL is an alternative system that in addition to Profit, includes People and Planet in the equation, in effect trying to add impact as a measure of success.

Even farther back, in 1985, Steve Jobs famously made his “Make a dent in the universe” speech. What Jobs was articulating — predicting, even — was an alternate view of the human spirit than the one generations before him embodied. Perhaps that memorable statement marked the beginning of impact as a guiding North Star. People started to become motivated by more than numbers on a spreadsheet and began to think more fully about a mission, a cause, and their own dent in the universe.

We now have multiple generations of workers in our organizations today who gravitate toward companies and nonprofits based on their purpose. So while typically a company’s primary measurement of success consists almost entirely of (critical) financial metrics (sales, profits, head count, market share, etc.), we see a clear benefit and opportunity to infuse the impact that the organization and its people want to have on the world into any planning process.

Impact, when well articulated, can resonate, inspire, and motivate almost universally within an organization, from top to bottom. Once each individual’s initiatives and daily activities are clearly mapped to that future impact, performance and behaviors are aligned organization-wide and clearly understood by all…embraced, even. The beautiful part of this system is that, in turn, impact can actually contribute to better financial metrics as well.

How to Use Impact as Your Organization’s Guiding Star  

Of course, the notion of impact is important for an organization’s entire ecosystem of constituents and stakeholders, not just its employees. Not only are teams aligning their careers with what matters most to them (their dent in the world), it’s been shown that customers shop based on how a brand does or does not align with their own personal values and commitment to impact, just as nonprofit donors gravitate to causes with compelling missions and visions of a better future.

  • Employees valuing impact: Am I contributing to a higher purpose and a greater good?
  • Customers valuing impact: Will buying this product or service have greater impact on the world than another I’m considering? (Think: “going Green.”)
  • Donors valuing impact: Why am I supporting this cause with my time, talent or treasure? Am I truly making a difference?

All of this clearly supports why, when guiding organizations through our decidedly different approach to strategic planning, I almost always start with impact. First we challenge leadership to articulate a clear and compelling vision of the future that explores and identifies the impact the organization will have on the world, the community, and the people within it. We must start by answering two questions with clarity and confidence:

  1. What impact will we have?
  2. What will the organization become?

It’s not always easy, but it’s almost always authentic to who the company or nonprofit organization truly is. Because it is rooted in genuine mission and purpose, it becomes natural and intuitive to effectuate with daily actions, goal-setting and incentives.

Once that paragon of the future is articulated, we then map backwards to present day. This exercise crystallizes the vision into a strategy, the strategy into a plan, and a plan into daily actions, roles and responsibilities.

This is how we move the organization from the strategic and the conceptual toward the operational.

  • How do we define our work in the community or our product/service offering to the market?
  • How do we talk about ourselves? What is the language we use to describe ourselves, market our products and services, and connect with the constituents that share our values and vision?
  • How is staffing, operations and the allocation of resources aligned with the future impact we are committing to have on the future?

Eventually, we of course put numbers to paper. But rather than the numbers being the North Star, they are more so reflections or outcomes of the impact the organization will achieve. Numbers are critical, and business dashboards remain necessary and relevant. However, they are a function of impact, not the drivers of impact.

This is How You Achieve Growth for Good

One of our own internal mantras that expresses Upland’s impact is heard daily around our corridors: “Growth for Good.” We believe organizations that are growing will have a greater ability to drive impact and make a difference in the world. It is a core belief and our mission:

Growth for Good is manifest in several inspiring outcomes, in our view:

At the end of the day, numbers are dynamic; they report and inform on past performance. Impact suggests permanence; it is a destination that can help chart a more effective strategic journey.

And finally, the old saying, “Find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life,” may actually represent a relevant and revealing truth about the workforce, where it’s been heading for some time, and how to better align with it.

Organizations that embrace Growth for Good by identifying, articulating, and activating around the positive impact they will have in the future — their dent on the world — can go a long way in helping employees feel good about (and empowered by) their work. Real satisfaction often comes from being a part of meaningful change. A Growth for Good strategy aligns an organization with those it serves (internal and external alike), allowing it to grow, thrive, and be a real force for change in the world we all inhabit.  

Listen to author Phil Roos as he describes the 2022 rebranding to Upland and its mission of Growth for Good:

Phil Roos

About The Author

Former CEO.