If you've ever been part of a team building a learning initiative, you know that sooner or later, strategic planning is crucial. Keep reading to view the strategic planning process from two perspectives - the consultant's and the stakeholder's - plus four elements that can help you successfully implement your plan.
The consultant's view
Expected outcomes. Strategic planning is a critical activity for an organization, whether not-for-profit or for-profit. A good plan can make the difference between success and failure, and between excellence and mediocrity. Far too often, organizations invest considerable time and money in strategic planning without reaching the desired results. The benefits of a successful planning process are too important to leave unfulfilled:
- Goals and objectives - This includes a plan for what to do. A train cannot move forward without the proper tracks laid in front of it.
- Decision aid - This is a guide for making really tough decisions in difficult situations, such as which programs to cut, where to invest energy, where to invest capital, or how to adjust to a rapidly changing environment.
- Change management - This represents a framework for managing organizational change and building creativity.
- Board management - This is a springboard for recharging and reforming the board.
- Inspiration - This acts as a tool for generating organization motivation and excitement.
Prerequisites. There are three organizational qualities required for excellent strategic planning: the objectivity to accurately assess the organization's strengths and weaknesses, the ability and creativity to envision the future, and the discipline to work through the plan with enough detail to provide a road map for staff and board members.
Identify key staff and board members with these strengths. There are two distinct dynamics in the planning process, including the content of the plan itself and the emotional climate. Both must be managed to obtain ongoing success.
Pre-planning. Many organizations do not invest enough thought into the preplanning process. These details can often spell the difference between success and failure:
- Data - Good data should drive the planning process, and it may take a bit of time to gather it, so start early. Creativity and intuition are also needed, but you need a solid base of information.
- Who - Who participates in the planning process is critical. Involve key staff, keep the number small, and include diversity in skills.
- Where and when - Decide early. An off-site meeting space is excellent for changing the mindset of participants. Timing is everything, so avoid times of crisis or times during which key staff members are too busy.
Process. When the proper groundwork has been laid, the planning process can be straightforward. Remember to balance the need for efficient use of time and the need for adequate discussion and resolution. Don't rush the process. It takes time, in addition to
- Mission and vision - A review of the mission and vision statements is necessary as a starting point. Maintaining a valid mission and vision for the organization are the reason for planning in the first place. Let a professional marketer wordsmith the statements, but agree on the principles. Avoid compromise for the sake of compromise; it often leads to mediocrity, not excellence.
- SWOT analyses - The discussion of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats should cover internal as well as external factors. Be brutally honest if you want to move forward.
- Goals and objectives - Every strategic plan has these. The good plans have measurable and specific objectives. If you can't measure it, how will you know when you've accomplished it? Equally as important, how will your organization learn from not accomplishing it?
- Timeframes - The plan must be tied to timeframes. Otherwise, the more difficult items will be put off until it's time to do another strategic plan.
Evaluation. Make your plan a living document. A strategic plan is like a budget in that it constantly needs tweaking as your organizational environment changes. Frequent reviews will mark progress, identify areas of concern, and highlight necessary changes to the plan. Key board and staff members should be thinking strategically all the time; the plan is a framework for their thinking.
Now that you're aware of the basics of setting up an effective strategic planning process for your organization, we will switch perspectives. Let's take a look at the process you've just seen from the lens of a senior stakeholder in one group engaged in strategic planning.
The stakeholder's view
Let's observe four elements of a successful implementation of a strategic plan from the stakeholder's perspective:
- getting started on the right foot
- anticipating and addressing stakeholder concerns
- the short-term benefits of a strategic plan
- following up for maximum long-term benefits.
Getting started. There are many potential dynamics involving the stakeholder. A wise facilitator will proceed delicately at the start to lower any mental walls. It's important to follow the proper protocol as you approach a group so that you can gain a proper welcome.
Because there is usually a diversity of opinions in any group, it's often best to gain entry with the head or senior group members first. This puts you through the proper channels with the proper support - a great first step!
Concerns. The next step is to tactfully uncover any concerns among the group members. While some are easy to find, other concerns may not be. Some may have nothing to do with you, so don't worry too much about them. Instead, be aware of issues related to the time, energy, and work that may be required of the members. Since schedules are tight, be prepared to wait a few months, rather than overselling the group or undercommunicating what the process requires from them.
Immediate benefits. Many benefits of applying the process that you read earlier in this article may be evident soon after you begin meeting. From a senior stakeholder's perspective, three key benefits of a well-directed strategic planning series are trust, initiative, and proactivity:
- Trust - Often, others propose better solutions than the leader could imagine. This builds trust.
- Initiative - People are more comfortable stepping up, taking responsibility for the work.
- Proactivity - Rather than "putting out fires," the group identifies and mitigates future problems before they happen.
Follow-up. Although the short-term goals are substantial, the stakeholder needs to follow-up on the initial sessions, especially if the facilitator is no longer available. Failing to do so may slow communication. If these goals fall off the group's agenda, this short-term morale boost may turn into disillusionment.
Three steps to follow at this point are:
- Don't panic - Lulls between sessions or at the end of a phase should be expected. Although some momentum may be lost, everyone needs to recharge and regroup. Simply stay calm, and steer people back into communication and shared goals.
- Stay flexible - Flexibility demonstrates that you're human, too. This raises morale and increases people's responsiveness when they need to act.
- Onboard and offboard - Stop the brain drain. Onboarding and offboarding starts now. Identify and train your successors as you share the long-term plans. Documenting job aids, organizational charts, and other key ideas helps manage the knowledge in your organization and keep everyone close to the same page.
By keeping in mind the mechanics of a solid, strategic planning process, as well as the stakeholder's perspective, you will be able to initiate, facilitate, and implement more of your training goals within your organization.