The difference between strategic management and process improvement

In my blog posts, I talk a lot about various types of performance measures, how to develop and collect them, and how to incorporate them in a logic model. One thing that I have been thinking a lot about, recently, is the role that different measures play in different types of decision-making, specifically process improvement and performance  management. 

A team is working together to use data in a process improvement discussion.

Process improvement means making decisions in the context of already having decided that your process is the right way to create the change you want in the world. For example, if your program provides tutoring for middle-schoolers, you might use process measures (or output measures) like length of tutor match and hours of tutoring to decide how you could provide your tutoring better or more efficiently.

Strategic management takes a look at a larger set of questions. Strategic management means that you are willing to question the entire process. In the above example, you might look at the students’ grades a year after tutoring and decide to start tutoring younger children or only tutor boys — a fundamental change to your program. You could even decide that tutoring is not adequate to create the long term outcomes your program is designed to create and add a significant element to your program such as a food pantry or a parents’ program.

Process improvement and performance management are two types of decision-making require two different sets of data. It’s useful to think of the data that’s used for process improvement as a dashboard. Are we going in the right direction? Are we going fast enough? The data to make strategic decisions is longer-term in nature. Sometimes I call this the scoreboard: What has happened to our graduates? Are we successfully addressing the problem we set out to solve?

In your logic model, the data for process improvement will likely live in the outputs column, while the data that you need for strategic management will live further to the right in your outcomes columns. 


At the beginning of any planning process, it’s useful to bring out your logic model, review it with your team and help them understand which type of data you will be looking at and what types of questions can be addressed. The decisions made in a strategic planning process will be longer term in nature and will take longer to implement — which will be frustrating for people who are planning to engage in a process improvement discussion. Decisions made in a process improvement discussion will be within certain constraints that should be made clear in advance so as not to frustrate or confuse staff who want to think bigger.

These are both crucial types of conversations to be having in your organization. Being clear about which you’re engaging in at what time will help them to be productive.




Pieta Blakely

About Pieta Blakely

I help mission-based organizations measure their impact so that they can do what they do well. I started my nonprofit career as a teacher in workforce development and adult basic education. It was important work and I was worried that we didn’t really know if we were doing it well. In the process of trying to answer that question, I got a Masters in Education and a PhD in Social Policy, and became an evaluator.

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