Consultants perform a unique service to organizations. In spite of
being outsiders, or often because of it, consultants can provide an
objective point of view and cost-effective expertise. This is never
more evident than in strategic planning. Hiring a consultant is an
excellent way to address organizational myopia, but it involves
The client risks his hard-earned cash to pay a consultant for a
strategic plan that may sit on a shelf without affecting
organizational direction or that retards growth and leaves the
The consultant risks his reputation and income. Organization
leadership may view consultants with too little or too much
respect, either acting to undermine the planning process or,
conversely, expecting the consultant to have all the answers. The
consultant may control the process but does not control the
The investment risk versus benefit paradigm seems to apply here.
Large risks have the potential for large gains while smaller risks
often produce few dividends. Leaders must weigh the tremendous
value of a well-crafted strategic planning process against the
risks of stagnation. The outline below will help consultants to
maximize gains and minimize risks.
Benefits of strategic planning
Strategic planning is a critical activity for any organization. A
good plan should help an organization move forward by creating the
following positive outcomes:
- Goals and objectives: a plan for what to do. A
train cannot move forward without the proper tracks laid before it.
Many planned goals are vague and lack objective quantification.
"Increase revenue" is not a sufficient goal. "Increase revenue by
10 percent per year by developing an improved collection system"
hits closer to the mark. The goals and objectives should be
detailed so that staff knows what needs to be done.
- Decision aid: a guide for making really tough
decisions in difficult situations. For example, which programs
should we cut, where do we invest energy and capital, and how do we
adjust to a rapidly changing environment?
- Change management: a framework for managing
organizational change and building creativity. Clear and specific
goals and objectives can provide the direction and rationale for
- Board management: a springboard for recharging and
reforming the board. Passionate board members are a must for
successful organizations. Those members who are not in sync with
the new directions and goals can be redirected to other endeavors
while excited new board members take their place.
- Inspiration: a tool for generating organization
motivation and excitement. Don't underestimate the importance of
energy and excitement. Staff and board members seek meaning from
their efforts. Striving to accomplish excellence can mean more than
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.
Identify key staff and board members with these strengths. Both the
content of the plan and the emotional climate must be managed to
obtain ongoing success.
Many organizations do not invest enough thought into the
pre-planning process. These details can often spell the difference
between success and failure. Good data should drive the planning
process. It may take a bit of time to gather the following data, so
- Who. Determining participants in the planning
process is critical. Involve key staff; keep the number small, and
include diversity in skills.
- Where and when. Decide early. Off-site meeting
space is excellent for changing the mindsets of participants.
Timing is everything - for example, during a crisis, when key staff
are too busy is not a good time.
When the proper groundwork has been done, 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 to develop:
- 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 is 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
- SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats)
analysis. This discussion should cover internal as well as
external factors. Be brutally honest, if you want to move forward.
- Goals and objectives. Good strategic 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 difficult tasks will be put on the backburner until
it's time to create another strategic plan.
Make your plan a living document. A strategic plan is like a
budget; 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 members and staff should be thinking strategically all the
time; the plan is a framework for their thinking.
It's important for the consultant to be a good fit with the
organization. This means a consultant should be credible with
planning participants, but it does not necessarily mean a
consultant must be from their industry. Understanding the strategic
planning process is essential, but knowledge of the industry must
come from the participants; it is they who must implement and
manage the plan.
The stakeholder's view
Now that we've covered the basics of setting up your strategic
planning process, let's switch focus away from the basics of
facilitation toward the experience of a senior stakeholder to help
you anticipate their needs. To be successful with stakeholders, you
will need to start on the right foot, overcome stakeholder
concerns, exploit short-term benefits of a strategic plan, and
transfer follow-up responsibility to the stakeholder.
Starting right involves a number of important considerations. Being
prompt, professional, and poised are common sense issues that are
both obvious and important. Additionally, protocol - going through
the proper channels in the proper manner - will help ensure that
you have the support of key leaders in the organization.
In any group there is also a diversity of opinions and contrasting
attitudes about a number of matters including the need for
planning; the group's track record; personal schedules, issues, and
crises; and current conflicts and stresses within the group. Being
aware of, and to whatever extent possible, appreciative of, these
opinions will help you to stay as objective as possible.
When I was preparing to take the lead of an organization, I was
overextended. My time was spread out between contracting, teaching
graduate courses, organizational duties, and additional newlywed
responsibilities. Since strategic planning was not a priority for
me, I needed to be convinced of the payoff.
Overcoming concerns involves anticipating and successfully
addressing common concerns, as well as the unique issues that will
arise in any group. This will test your emotional and
Fortunately, learning just a few things about each board member
will provide clues concerning his level of openness and desire for
strategic planning. Some concerns, such as time sensitivity, are
more apparent than others, such as the politics of the group.
Interviewing the leaders who are championing the need for strategic
planning will help you discover opportunities that might have been
Basic concerns include:
- Do I have time for this?
- Will we follow through?
- Can this facilitator get results?
Frankly, I had doubts as to whether our team could pull off our
commitments from the last board meeting, much less a
three-to-five-year strategic plan! My facilitator had a big job on
his hands, and he came through in the end, because he was open to
my limitations and willing to wait several months until schedules
Exploiting short-term benefits
Strategic planning can produce both short- and long-term benefits.
When a group is reenergized with a common vision, short-term
benefits are virtually guaranteed. A wise facilitator celebrates
progress while also helping stakeholders execute the plan for the
In my situation the results were immediate. Before this process it
seemed as though the current leader and I were doing much of the
work alone. Having a facilitator who drew out the opinions of the
entire board helped everyone to feel valued and to take greater
ownership of the organization's priorities. As a result, board
members experienced collective buy-in, ownership, and
accountability; self-motivation and follow-through; and improved
morale and relationships.
The final step is to transfer ownership for strategic follow-up to
the primary stakeholder. Since this key task is the only way to
sustain progress, it should be repeatedly emphasized throughout the
Follow-up entails stakeholders completing or modifying existing
goals and facilitating future strategic planning. Although it's
easy to overlook the need to follow-up, it is vital. The danger of
overlooking follow-up is that if the long-term goals are not
attained, employees may become more disillusioned than ever before.
Helping stakeholders be aware of their need to take responsibility
for planning can prevent this from happening.
After several planning sessions, the facilitator and I discussed
ways to transfer the follow-up responsibility to the board. Here
are three tips we use:
- Relational. By speaking one-on-one with each board
member, pointing out the current short-term benefits, and focusing
on her area of expertise, you can help her discover her plan to
- Strategic. Separate decision making and strategic
planning into separate meetings. Schedule a second monthly meeting,
because it saves time and emotional energy, and it allows for brief
board meetings and proactive planning meetings, with fewer
- Clerical. Document each member's tasks on a
monthly report. Before each meeting, list the goals and tie them to
the appropriate person who provides a status update. The document
As you implement your strategic plans, be sure to follow the steps
above for success. By starting right, overcoming concerns,
exploiting short-term benefits, and transferring follow-up
responsibility your organization will be on its way to a better
Philip N. Witmer is president of
not-for-profit management consultancy The Mission Works LLC; Philip@TheMissionWorksLLC.com .
Nathan Eckel teaches courses in adult learning and
online collaboration at LaSalle University and is president of
ASTD's Greater Philadelphia Chapter. He is the author of Open
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