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 risks.

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 organization vulnerable.

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 outcome.

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 change.
  • 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 financial gain.

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. 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 start early.

  • 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.

The process

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 excellence.
  • 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.

Evaluation

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

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

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 organizational intelligence.

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 missed.

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 opened up.

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 long-term.

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.

Transferring follow-up

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 process.

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 sustain change.
  • 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 emergencies.
  • 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 facilitates accountability.

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 future.

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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 Source Instructional Design: Successfully Mentoring Subject Experts;nathaneckel@gmail.com.