Having a strategic plan is vital for your agency; if you need to be convinced of this please see Setting your Course. Some agencies fail to plan because they have had bad experiences with the process or believe that they cannot afford to do it correctly. This article talks about some of the common shortcomings of strategic planning processes. These traps are easy to fall into and can result in plans being less effective then they should be. Don’t allow your agency to fall prey to the belief that there is only one, usually expensive, way to create a plan.
A strategic plan should be informed by many stakeholders but written by few. Strategic plans are long term, broad statements about where the agency intends to go. They should avoid focusing on urgent, but temporary problems. The finished product should offer clear goals with some strategies for achieving those goals. Most importantly, the strategic plan should be used. It should be used to make decisions about what an agency will do, and also to make decisions about what an agency should not do.
Here are some common strategic planning traps you should avoid:
Mistaking urgent for important:
Strategic planning is a long-term process. Often, when people come together to plan, the things that are currently challenging them are ‘top of mind’ to fix. It is important, when looking at those issues to determine whether they are urgent or important. If they are urgent, they need to be addressed, but not necessarily in a strategic plan that will guide the organization for 3-5 years.
Losing the important issues in grouped goals:
Many strategic planning processes encourage everyone to state their issues and/or desired goals and ask the participants to group similar ideas to create a single statement that summarizes the rest. Often the grouping of ‘like’ issues leads to a new goal that has very little resemblance to the initial issues that were presented. At the time, it all makes sense, but 2 weeks later, back at the office, the people responsible for implementing the plan may have no idea what the goal means, why it has been included or what to do with it.
Not using the expertise of participants:
Strategic planning participants are usually a diverse group of stakeholders that may include funders, staff, volunteers, consumers, partners and interested community members. These individuals all come with a different knowledge base. While everyone’s thoughts are valuable, some people have more knowledge about specific issues. A good planning process should differentiate between informed and uninformed opinions.
Viewing planning as an exercise in democracy:
I first heard about ‘dotocracy’ in the 1990’s. Participants are given a set number of stick-on dots to ‘vote’ for their favorite idea or goal. The idea with the most dots makes it into the strategic plan. Dotocracy has its place; it’s fun and gives everyone an opportunity to provide input, however, the results should never be binding, they should influence but not direct the agency’s plan.
Organizations that have many staff and volunteers doing the same type of work and fewer people working in other areas must decide how the majority role should impact the planning process. For example, an environmental organization could have many biologists, but few administrative staff. A health care facility may have many nurses but few social workers and clerical staff. On one hand, if the organization’s primary work is biology or nursing, it may make sense to have those disciplines have greater representation. On the other hand, if there is a lot of variety in the work, the over-representation of one discipline may lead to a shift in organizational goals as participants focus on what they know the best.
Trying to get it done in a day, by a group:
I have sat through far too many strategic planning processes that put people together in a room at 9 am and held them captive until they completed the plan by 5 pm. What happens? There is great enthusiasm at 9 am and people come up with many fabulous ideas and generate stimulating discussion; by 2 pm, people are tired and will agree to almost anything to move the process along.
A day of strategic planning is a wonderful way to create a sense of team, share ideas and provide fodder for the plan, however, the plan itself, should not be created by a large group. The information that is gleaned from the strategic planning day, should be shared with a small writing team that will consolidate the information and create the plan that is ultimately amended and approved by the board of directors.
The plan is not defendable:
Since a strategic plan typically lasts 3 to 5 years, there will be many new board members, staff, volunteers and clients over the plan’s lifespan. Each of these people will have new ideas. They will want to know how the goals were established and whether their ideas were considered. If the planning process did not include enough stakeholders, or if the process is unclear, it will be difficult to defend the plan and to keep people focused on achieving the goals.
While the final plan should offer an executive summary that is quick to read and easy to interpret, the methodology and the notes from each stage of planning must be available for people who join after the planning is completed and need to understand how goals were arrived at.
The plan doesn’t get used
Nothing is more frustrating than spending precious resources on a plan that never sees the light of day after is it drafted. The strategic plan must be used continuously, for it to be of value. A good strategic plan should be used to create annual workplans for all staff and for the board; it should be used to make decisions; and it should focus the agency on key outcomes. Since we know that what gets measured, gets done, the board should regularly, at least quarterly, assess its progress on achieving the planning priorities. The plan should also be available on the agency website for volunteers, staff members, clients and donors.
Good Strategic planning:
Good strategic planning is transparent but not democratic. The long form of the plan should describe the entire planning exercise and include appendices where people can find their input represented. An executive summary including the agency’s mission, vision, values and strategic priorities should also be available for people. Everyone who is involved must understand from the beginning, that their opinions are valued and will be considered, but that ultimately, the board of directors has the final responsibility for setting the strategic direction for the agency.
Don’t let anyone tell you that there is only one way to create a strategic plan, or that the process must be time consuming and expensive. A consultant is helpful, but not necessary to a good planning process. Planning can be done virtually if geography or other barriers exist to meeting in person. Surveys, interviews and on-line technology, make gathering information easier than ever before. A strategic plan is essential to running your agency, and to attracting clients, volunteers, staff and donors to your cause.
Sandra Dunham is the sole-proprietor of Streamline New Perspective Solutions
Streamline New Perspective Solutions offers management consulting services for non-profit organizations. Please visit www.streamlinenps.ca