Follow the Yellow Brick Road: The Wizard of Oz as a Strategic Planning Tool

By Michelle Hunter, Associate Consultant

Looking for a way to make your organization’s strategic planning exciting and more relatable? Having a difficult time explaining strategic planning terminology?

Fasten your seatbelt, Toto. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

At first glance, The Wizard of Oz—the widely beloved children’s book by Frank L. Baum, the 1939 film starring Judy Garland, and countless other adaptations for stage and screen—may seem to have little to do with strategic planning: the process through which organizations define their long-term vision and identify strategies and action steps to achieve that vision.

Although the two may seem to be unlikely companions, there is actually a lot we can glean from The Wizard of Oz about strategic planning.

But first, why compare these two things at all?

Strategic Planning: Keeping It Simple

The Alford Group believes strategic planning can and should be a transformative process: one that fosters engagement; energizes and strengthens teams; unlocks bold, innovative thinking; and launches organizations on a path to achieving breakthrough results.

Unfortunately, strategic planning can sometimes be perceived as just the opposite: overwhelming, tedious, draining or a distraction from the organization’s “real work.” It doesn’t help that the discipline of strategic planning is filled with confusing and hard-to-retain terms: strategies, actions, goals, objectives, tactics, metrics, strategic plan, business plan… Many groups find they can’t even begin the process until they’ve come to agreement on the terms and definitions they’ll use!

If you’re looking for an engaging, light-hearted way to draw your group into strategic planning—or you just need something to help clear up the jargon—consider using The Wizard of Oz as a structure. Thanks to translations, subtitles and the enduring love of this classic over time, many of us are familiar with Dorothy and her journey through Oz no matter where or when we grew up.

It also just happens to be a perfect metaphor for strategic planning.

Your participants are bound to have some prior knowledge of the story and will pick up on the parallels right away.

Over the Rainbow: A Vision for Your Organization’s Future

The opening sequence of The Wizard of Oz is a terrific illustration of the starting point for many nonprofits who embark on strategic planning. Dorothy is a Kansas farmgirl who dreams of a more fulfilling life beyond her black-and-white landscape. She’s doing fine by most measures—she has a good home and is well-cared for by her aunt and uncle—yet she cannot shake her vision of a better future waiting for her over the rainbow.

Just like Dorothy, most nonprofits begin strategic planning from a position of strength. They’ve already achieved a number of their goals and demonstrated solid performance to their communities and stakeholders. Now, they wish to build on their success by articulating a powerful new vision for their organization’s next chapter.

Sometimes, of course, nonprofits may be compelled to create a strategic plan in response to an actual or anticipated obstacle (say, a twister). Even in these cases, your organization is still motivated by a desire to craft a more compelling vision for the future.

Just as Dorothy steps out of her two-toned world and into the brilliance of Technicolor, so too should strategic planning help you see your organization and work in a different, richer and fuller light. Only by broadening and adjusting your lens can you envision the new, exciting possibilities for your programs and future.

Strategic Planning Exercise: Ask your group to imagine and describe what your organization’s “Kansas landscape” (current state) looks like right now. What’s going well? What are you most proud of? What could you be doing better? Then, invite participants to imagine they’ve stepped into a dazzling new world filled with all the colors of the rainbow. What do you see? What is your organization doing? What’s different? What have you accomplished?

The Yellow Brick Road: Your Strategic Roadmap

Once your organization’s vision starts to take shape, you’ll need to define the goals, strategies and action steps that will allow you to achieve the vision. This is the part where many groups find themselves tripped up by terminology. But it doesn’t need to be overly-complicated—and luckily, there’s a ready-made example in The Wizard of Oz to help you: the Yellow Brick Road.

The Yellow Brick Road, of course, is the path that leads Dorothy through Oz to the Emerald City—that glowing green metropolis where she hopes to meet the great and powerful Wizard. The Emerald City comes to represent a major marker in her Dorothy’s journey, and an object of her desire.

In a strategic planning context, we can use the Emerald City as a metaphor for any strategic goal your organization wishes to achieve. The Yellow Brick Road represents strategyhow you will get there; the path you identify as the best, smartest way to accomplish your goal. And each of the shiny yellow bricks in the road represents an action step—the smaller tactics that go into executing your strategy.

Strategic Planning Exercise: Consider creating a simple template to help your organization understand the steps and terminology that go into strategic planning—using The Wizard of Oz as an example!

There’s No Place Like Home: Your Mission

Famously, Dorothy’s journey through Oz takes her right back to where she began: the cornfields of Kansas. The point of a strategic plan is to move forward, not backward, but there’s still a valuable lesson to be drawn from the idea of returning home. In order to see the lesson, let’s compare home to a nonprofit’s mission. This actually makes a great deal of sense, as the mission is frequently characterized as the organization’s compass or North Star.

If your strategic plan is out of synch with your mission—whether that mission has been reaffirmed or completely reimagined through your planning process—it’s a likely sign that either the mission or the plan is flawed. By returning “home” and revisiting your mission, you can ensure your new aspirations and the core reason for your existence are in alignment with one another.

 More Ways to Engage

The above ideas should go a long way toward grabbing your group’s attention, getting your process off to a lively and engaging start, and demystifying the strategic planning process. If participants are interested, however, there are many more ways to connect strategic planning to The Wizard of Oz.

A good planning process will explore the organization’s current assets and strengths. Consider the tools that Dorothy and her friends use along their journey.

What are your nonprofit’s ruby slippers or woodsman’s hatchet?

In terms of your most ardent champions and supporters, who is your Good Witch of the North?

Conversely, the challenges or threats your organization faces can be compared to the Wicked Witch of the West, or her henchmen. Brains, heart and courage can be used to jump-start a conversation on the new skills and capabilities your nonprofit must build in order to successfully execute your strategic plan.

The possibilities are seemingly endless, and your participants may even raise new comparisons of their own.

At the Alford Group, we believe the quality of a strategic planning process to be just as important as the final plan itself. That’s why we partner with our clients to design processes that participants find worthwhile, insightful, engaging, memorable and even fun.

In that spirit, we hope the suggestions offered here will help you consider new ways to enliven your process and to make the most of your strategic planning opportunity.

For more on planning during COVID-19, check out Working Toward the Next Normal: COVID-19 Resources Toolkit