Strategic Planning V3.0

The words “strategic planning” send chills down the spine of most reasonable people. That’s due in part to less than positive experiences in a process that was called “strategic planning.” Given the option of watching paint dry or engaging a strategic planning process, most would choose the former. Consultants like me share a significant degree of the blame for this reality. Many of us have made an abomination out of a process that reasonably should invigorate, energize, and inspire leadership teams of nonprofit organizations and businesses alike.

The Problem

The problem, at least in part is that strategic planning has been marketed as an event. You have an offsite kumbaya gathering of the executive leadership to do strategic planning. You meet for a day or perhaps two and at the end of it you emerge with an extensive work of art called a “strategic plan.” Most often it promptly gets forgotten and there is little if any follow through on the conversations, decisions and identified priorities that emerged out of the exercise. Some consultant walks away with a handsome fee, and a group of executive leaders leave naively thinking they’ve made significant progress only to wake up a month or two down the road completely disillusioned with the entire process vowing “never” to do that again! As a result capable, well-meaning executive leaders abandon a process that if done well, can be the very life blood of the organization, injecting, passion, energy, focus and inspiration into the organizations bloodstream! Why? Because strategic planning has been relegated to an event rather than an ongoing process.

Towards a Solution

The term “strategic planning” is really a misnomer. What if you called it “strategic thinking” instead? Now I know that merely changing the name doesn’t necessarily alter the essence of the process, but I’m suggesting in this case that a subtle adjustment can make a profound difference on both the experience and outcome of the process. The format might look very similar. It might be an offsite event facilitated by an external consultant but the dynamics are very different. The purpose is to think strategically about the organization, to take a look back at where you’ve come from, to evaluate where you are, and to then think strategically about where you need to go as an organization given your past and present realities, and the future you envision.

But strategic thinking doesn’t stop when the event ends. The process I’m proposing, incorporates strategic thinking into the organizational DNA where every decision in every department involves a strategic thinking process. Every challenge is viewed as an opportunity to think strategically about how best to address not just the symptom but the root cause. Every request to add programs or services is first evaluated through the lens of strategic thinking. How does this fit with what we’ve identified as our organizational priorities? Every staff hire is filtered through a rigorous grid of strategic thinking to ensure that the person and the role fits with the overall organization priorities.

Strategic Planning 3.0

There’s a need for a software update so to speak when it comes to strategic planning. Strategic Planning v3.0 if you will. My experience in the nonprofit sector is extensive and I’ve observed, developed and utilized a number of strategic planning models. Some of those I’ve developed, I’m embarrassed to put my name to. But I’ve found a model that in my experience addresses the identified problem and radically transforms the outcomes for the organizations who’ve experienced the model. I won’t go into a lot of detail other than to say that two of the four steps to the process involve Strategic Thinking AND Execution Planning. The Execution Planning piece is critical to seeing strategic thinking become an integral DNA molecule in the organization, and if done well it holds every executive leader, every department, every employee accountable to do the harder work of thinking strategically as a way of life, not just during the event. The Execution Planning piece identifies specific, measurable, time-lined outcomes with each outcome assigned to one specific person. That piece dramatically increases the likelihood of translating the strategic thinking into a clear, concise implementation plan. Therein lies the secret.

What Now?

The worst thing you could do is abandon strategic thinking as a key part of your organizations DNA. Strategic thinking done well should send chills down your spine – but for very different reasons! Those chills ought to be chills of excitement as you see the incredible potential of what your organization is capable of when strategic thinking becomes a way of life in the day to day management of your organization, not a kumbaya event! Find someone who has a proven track record of inspiring this kind of life, vitality and energy into nonprofit organizations and then arrange to have them facilitate the process with you and your team! It will be worth EVERY penny you spend on it! But make sure they’re using the Strategic Planning V3.0 operating system! Tech support is no longer offered on Strategic Planning V2.0!

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DIY-Strategic Planning

Let’s start by talking about strategic focus. Leadership models and new business models are key ingredients to success in the 21st century. The successful 21st century business model is built around servant style leadership with a focus on strategic thinking by harnessing the creativity and innovation of the employees. The vehicle to accomplish this is the strategic planning process
Strategy serves as the organization compass and roadmap to future success. Strategic thinking must be clear and communicated effectively throughout the organization. It is not something you can leverage with technology. It isn’t something you will find in the latest business manual. It is embedded in the minds of your management team and most of your employees. It is your employees who are on the front line and know what is really going on with your customers and your markets. It requires effective leadership to release the power of the employees in building a strategic roadmap to the future.

Defining objectives and developing initiatives and action plans to meet those objectives is the basis of strategic planning. However, it all starts with an end game, a “Vision for the Future.”

Strategic planning is a management tool. It is used to help an organization clarify its future direction – to focus its energy, and to help members of the organization work toward the same goals. The planning process adjusts the organization’s direction in response to a changing environment. Strategic planning is a disciplined effort to support fundamental decisions and actions that shape and guide what an organization is, what it does and why it does it, with a focus on where it wants to go and how it is going to get there.

Fundamental decisions, actions and choices must be made in order to develop a plan that provides a Roadmap on “How to get there from Here.”.” The plan is ultimately no more, and no less, than a set of decisions about what to do, why to do it, and when and how to do it.

The scope of the strategy development process for any company is dependent upon individual business needs. The strategic planning process is a time and resource-consuming endeavor that involves many people in the organization. This process includes both tactical and strategic application. The DIY process assumes that you have a good handle on both your internal and external environment. If you don’t you may want to consider hiring a consultant to do an internal assessment and survey your customers and vendors to analyze your external environment.

Hiring a consulting firm can cost as little as $10,000 for a simple two day facilitation to upwards of $100,000 for comprehensive involvement by the consulting firm during the entire process.

So, if you are not inclined to hire an outside consultant, you may want to follow this ten step process for DIY (Do It Yourself) Strategic Planning. Although it isn’t possible to describe in great detail the entire process in an article (it would require 50 pages) the following is an overview of the process.

The Ten Step Process

Let’s identify the steps first and then we’ll discuss each one in a little more detail . I cannot emphasize enough that the true value of a strategic plan is not in the document itself. It is in the process of creating it, involving many of your employees from the bottom up. This empowers them to be more effective and better-informed leaders, managers and decision makers.

1. Select the strategy team and send a company wide communication

2. Create a Vision for the Future (End Game)

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Strategic Planning: Street-Wise Tips to Make It Work for Your Organization

Strategic planning can be either a boon or a bust for an organization. Many people bring “baggage” to the process. Some people have had terrible experiences. They vehemently oppose committing time and other resources to it. Others yawn, glaze over and are completely skeptical that the process can produce any measurable results. Others enthusiastically embrace the process and produce extraordinary results.

What makes a strategic planning project successful? How can you get the most out of the time and money invested in the project? The following points address key factors that will help you take action to plan and implement a successful strategic planning project.

1. Invest time in “planning to plan.”

Get commitment from the CEO and senior management. Make sure that the CEO and senior management will be active participants. This means clearing their schedules to ensure attendance in all face-to-face strategic thinking sessions. Be sure they understand that the commitment of resources extends beyond face-to-face strategic thinking sessions. Resources, including time as well as money, must be committed to the implementation and measurement stages in order for the strategic plan to be successful.

Appoint a Project Planning Team. This team will usually consist of two to four people who are responsible for making decisions about the structure of the project and communicating with the others who will be involved.

Determine whether to use an internal or external facilitator. An external trainer enables all those involved to actively participate in the strategic thinking activities. It is extremely difficult for an internal person to facilitate and also express their personal insights as questions are raised. An external facilitator also offers “the third person” perspective, can bring information from other sources and challenge “entrenched in-house thinking” or “corporate taboos.” An external facilitator can manage the group’s participation without concern of the hierarchy, political consequences or personal repercussions.

Develop a clear statement of what you want to achieve. By clearly articulating what you want to accomplish, you improve your chances for success. Utilize the facilitator to help you. Communicate this statement to participants and other members of your organization.

Explore the benefits, drawbacks of a variety of formats with the facilitator.Work with the facilitator to select the format that best meets the unique needs of the organization and individuals involved. (Do you want to utilize pre-session activities conducted by electronic media/fax/mail to get participants thinking before the face-to-face sessions? Is there a need for market research? If so, what type and to what extent? What existing information is pertinent for the group to review? Should strategic thinking sessions be half-day, full-day, spread out over several months or condensed into several days back-to-back? Should the strategic thinking sessions be held on-site or off-site? What atmosphere is most conducive for the participants to leave behind the day-to-day pressures so they can fully concentrate on strategic thinking?)

2. Gain an understanding of the key elements of the process and the facilitator’s style. A comprehensive strategic planning project should include:

Conducting an Environmental Scan – This helps you understand the current environment that your organization operates within. It often includes market research in the form of surveys, focus groups or industries studies. It should include an analysis of the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT.) It should identify the organization’s core competencies.

Developing or reaffirming of the organization’s Core Values, Mission and Vision.

Identifying and prioritizing the Key Strategic Issues/Directions.

Developing an Action Plan that includes goals, objectives, action steps, time lines and outcome measurement strategies.

Implementing the Action Plan.

Evaluating progress by how effectively you’ve met the outcome measurements.

Communicating the benefits of the strategic planning process to those who will be participating.

3. Conduct the strategic planning activities.

Work with the facilitator to determine the logistics of any pre-session activities. Determine how those activities will be conducted — by phone, email, fax or mail? Who will disburse the information? Who will gather the responses, compile and distribute summaries? Determine who is to be contacted?

Work with the facilitator to develop an agenda for any face-to face strategic thinking sessions.

Give the facilitator freedom to implement the process in the manner that works for him/her. Each facilitator has his/her own style. Allow them to utilize their style to maximize the results.

During the strategic thinking activities, allow the process to work the participants. Be on your guard for an individual or group of individuals who try to control or manipulate the process to achieve (or avoid) preconceived results. A good facilitator will minimize the chances of this happening, but support from the Project Planning Team can be very helpful.

4. Implement the action plan.

Implementing the action plan is essential to your overall success. Strategic planning is much more than merely the strategic thinking and strategy development. The essence of strategic planning is implementing the strategy, measuring the outcomes and adjusting your organization’s performance based upon the outcome measurements.

Use the strategic plan to guide day-to-day activity, budget development, research and development, etc.

Measure, measure, measure. Measure your progress by utilizing the outcome measurement strategies that are part of the action plan.

5. Review, re-evaluate and revise.

Review the strategic plan at least annually. Better yet, record progress quarterly. Then review the progress on an annual basis.

Re-evaluate the environment, core values, mission, vision and key strategic issues/directions. If these need to be revised, do so.

Revise as needed and develop a new action plan.

Make strategic planning an ongoing activity rather than one that is conducted every three or five years.

Strategic planning provides your organization with the foundation for sustainable growth. It helps you know where you want the organization to go and when you have achieved your goals. Strategic planning not only helps you manage change, but profit from change. It increases your control over those forces that affect you and helps you to respond more effectively to those forces that you cannot control. During these uncertain times, a successfully implemented strategic planning process can be the “guiding light” that helps employees and management manage and prosper from change.

2011 Center for Strategic Change, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Judy Whalen is founder of Whalen & Associates, Inc. and the Center for Strategic Change, LLC. Judy has over 18 years of experience as a consultant to business and nonprofit leaders guiding them through strategic thinking sessions and developing strategic plans. The Center for Strategic Change provides consulting services in the areas of strategy, market research and communications. It also offers teleseminars, webinars, live workshops and a DVD series to help business and nonprofit leaders grow and sustain their organizations. Judy is also the founder of Strengthen the Harmony between Your Life, Family and Work to help individuals build harmony between their personal life, family life and business life.

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Ten Major Fears That Scare Small Businesses Away From Strategic Planning

An often offered comment to me when I speak about strategic planning to small business owners and managers is that their company or organization is too small for strategic planning. Or they will offer any number of other excuses why they do not use strategic planning for their business. In my opinion, this is a sad commentary on the thinking of these small business people. They do not realize or comprehend that their business or organization is on their way to the business graveyard without a strategic plan.

Well, I really believe if the truth were told, the real reason they do not do strategic planning is related more to fear than anything else. And so I ask this question: “why are so many of these businesses strategically challenged, strategically averse and/or just plain scared or fearful of strategic planning?” Your Strategic Thinking Business Coach reviewed and reflected upon experiences with this type of small business thinking and offers the following list of ten major fears that drive small businesses away from strategic planning.

Fear #1: Fear of being intimidated and overwhelmed by the strategic planning process.

Many small business owners and leaders have pre-conceived an idea of what strategic planning is and fear that the process of strategic planning will be too overwhelming for them. Therefore, they feel intimidated by the process and do not want to even start the process.

Fear #2: Fear of repeated past bad experiences with strategic planning.

Small business leaders may have had some extremely negative and possibly harmful experiences with strategic planning in the past. They may have had a very poor consultant that was brought in and nearly ruined the business. Maybe they spent weeks in meetings without accomplishing one thing because they did not use a professional facilitator. Or maybe they launched a plan without any means of accountability.

Fear #3: Fear of the amount of anticipated time and commitment to develop a strategic plan.

Small businesses do not have a large corporate staff and are so busy putting out fires and managing day-to-day activities that they believe they will not have time to focus on long-term and strategic thinking. They want to keep working “in the business” but avoid working “on he business.” And this translates to a basic fear that if they divert time to strategic planning, the business will fall apart in the meantime.

Fear #4: Fear of academic or the ivory tower thinking.

Many small business owners are distrustful of theories, systems, generalizations and formulas. There is the fear of “this is fine in theory but I does not work in the real world.”

Fear #5: Fear of the facilitation process.

The most effective strategic planning meetings use the skills of a professional facilitator. Small business owners and mangers may fear that the meetings, no matter how well intended, will end up as gripe sessions or hours of aimless wandering without a clear agenda or purpose.

Fear #6: Fear of commitment.

A benefit of strategic planning is that it leads to decisive action. So, in companies where the owner and management likes to “hold back” or “hedge bets,” work on many things at the same time and “keep all options open,” this can be a real problem. This stems from a fear of making a decision and following through with commitment to carry out that decision.

Fear #7: Fear of accountability.

Most small business owners are only accountable to themselves and many times that really means they are “not accountable to anyone” and are not really held accountable. With strategic planning, there is a system of accountability built into the plan and this causes some real fear and distress to some small business people.

Fear #8: Fear of failure.

In small businesses the cost of failure is high and the personal risks are great. In large companies, the management is really dealing with someone else’s money. In small business and especially with entrepreneurs, one’s livelihood is at stake. A winning strategic plan could help the entrepreneur realize his dream, but a losing plan could result in a nightmare.

Fear #9: Fear of the cost of strategic planning.

This fear arises when there is no strategic thinking used to look at the value of strategic planning to the business compared to the cost. Fear also arises when strategic planning is viewed as an expense rather than as an investment.

Fear #10: Fear of discomfort and confrontation during the strategic planning process.

Many small business owners and managers are very fearful and uncomfortable with “confrontations” and they go to great lengths to avoid them. They are very uncomfortable in any confrontation and are fearful that they will be confronted with some issue or problem during the strategic planning process that they would rather avoid. Therefore, they decide to not engage in the strategic planning process.

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Are Non-Profits Prepared For Strategic Planning?

I wish I could count the number of times I have attended a non-profit strategic planning session, or discussed the need to have (or update) one in a board meeting, or been invited to serve as the facilitator. It has always – always – struck me that the strategic planning session should just be starting about the time that it is actually ending (e.g., too much time is wasted at the beginning and then a frenzy results at the end). The purpose of this article is to outline some observations over 30 years of strategic planning experience and to share suggestions that will improve the chances for a successful outcome.

Holding a Strategic Planning Session
At some point in time, every member of a non-profit board is going to hear the suggestion: “let’s hold a strategic planning session!” from a fellow board member or staff member. It’s not a bad idea but, unfortunately, it’s often a waste of time and produces no measurable outcomes. I want to share some observations and thoughts about strategic planning – invite debate – and see if we can come up with some guidelines that make the investment of time worthwhile. I have often said that strategic planning is a ‘process’ and not an ‘event’ – and I still very much believe that statement is true. However, maybe I should also add the caveat that a successful ‘process’ does indeed require an ‘event’ – or series of events – which is precisely the point. If you agree with my belief that the event often ends about the time it should be starting, then you would have to agree that additional follow-up after the event is required in order to create a meaningful strategic plan because the plan stopped short of completion during the original event. And a lot of time was used inefficiently, which also makes people reluctant to participate in the future.

A Working Document
Without a doubt, the primary way that I judge a successful strategic plan is by seeing a copy of it a year after the ‘event.’ If it’s a bit too dusty (which is often said in jest, but is true!) and if the pages are in pristine condition, then the event that created the plan was obviously not successful in motivating action. However, if the copy is dog-eared, marked up, added to, pages tagged, and otherwise well-used; then the event was super successful because a ‘process’ was indeed born and the need for ongoing action was instilled. In my opinion, successful outcomes are too rare in the strategic planning ‘implementation’ phase. The copy of the strategic plan that I described as a success is one that has become a working document, which is what planning is all about.

Defining ‘Strategic’
From an analytical standpoint, one way to define something is to determine what it is not. Strategy is different from ‘tactical’ or ‘operational’ (which is actually performing a task). Strategy is more subjective and cerebral; it involves thinking about an issue in broader terms than usual; thinking about circumstances that do not currently exist (i.e., future oriented) and determining how to adapt the organization to benefit from those predicted opportunities or avoid anticipated threats. Often, it involves thinking about an issue totally differently than ever before (which is VERY hard to do). Strategy development is not the same as operations implementation. For example, when I have been invited to ‘do’ strategic planning for an organization, I always ask if there is an Operating Plan; i.e., if you don’t know how to perform your core business every day (Operating Plan), why would you want to spend time working on a future-oriented process (Strategic Plan)? Strategy (highly subjective) is the opposite of operational (highly objective/defined/specific). Objective is ‘cut and dried’ – there is a procedure/process/outcome that arises from certain actions, done at certain times, in a certain way to produce known/certain outcomes. We already know if we do these certain things what we will get. Most people can adequately perform what they are taught/instructed. However, developing strategy – even the process of thinking about it – is very different. A strategic planning session led by a ‘doer’ instead of a ‘strategist’ and ‘critical thinker’ will yield disappointing results; however, ‘doers’ can be very helpful in participating in the development of strategy if they are properly guided. A couple of very simple examples of strategic vs. operational issues will make the point:

Funding
Operational – How are we going to make payroll next month?
Strategic – How do we need to adapt our operations to comply/excel with the recent changes for non-profits by Congress?

New Program
Operational – We need to add a new program to our existing series.
Strategic – We need to add a new series to cover new topics that will take our organization in a new direction.

Operating Plans Are Important
Let me be quick to tout the benefits of an Operating Plan. Properly executed, an Operating Planning Session can provide or refine specific guidance/clarification/policy on any number of day-to-day issues that really can be a big help when running the organization. The primary difference between strategic and operating (which is a huge difference) is that operating plans deal with the ‘here and now’ – with processes and policies that will improve the current business function – strategic plans, simply put, engage the participants in thought processes meant to challenge the current business function by looking into the future and assessing opportunities, threats, weaknesses, and strengths. A good Operating Plan can minimize daily confusion/questions about the manner in which specific job functions should be conducted. The ‘event’ of operations planning – getting the appropriate team together to discuss, debate, and decide the issues – is, in-of-itself, a very worthwhile team-building and clarifying session (if properly planned and executed). While Operating Plans are beyond the scope of this article, I wanted to make sure they were mentioned in a positive context.

The Mission Statement and The SWOT Analysis
Unfortunately, most strategic planning sessions seem to begin with either a review of the mission statement or a SWOT analysis. Both are usually ‘deal-busters’ in that they bog down the process of innovative thinking for strategic planning. For example, unless the core business of the organization has been totally disrupted (e.g., by lack of funding or policy, political, social, or technology changes), then the existing mission statement should be in reasonably good condition. To delve into the mission statement – and debate specific words and placement within the text – sucks the life out of the planning session and can often pit individuals against each other right from the start over silly things like wordsmithing. Not only is this unfortunate, but I would suggest that it is totally unnecessary. How can you revise a mission statement until you go through the rigors of the strategic planning process and determine whether or not there are bona-fide strategic issues worth pursuing? My preference is to hold the mission statement for a separate planning meeting after the strategic plan has at least been through an initial rough draft process. Perhaps a good analogy is to look at the mission statement from the back end – maybe it should be thought of as more of an executive summary?

Preparation For The Planning Session Is Critical
There is probably no exercise that requires more preparation than strategic planning. Why? Because the participants must be the right ones (those with authority and accountability), the purpose of the exercise must be made very clear (to stay ‘on point’ and eliminate confusion and fear), and the process must be known and engaging in advance (so participants can be prepared to contribute their very best). The most obvious difference between a private-sector strategic planning session and one for a non-profit organization is the inclusion of volunteers, namely the board of directors. The good news is that the planning session will include a diversity of opinion; the bad news is that most board members have probably been through some type of strategic planning before and have preconceived notions about the process based on their previous experiences (hence, the importance of preparing for the session in advance). I will discuss the dynamics of the volunteer participants in a later section.

I strongly recommend using an experienced professional outside facilitator (not a staff member, a board member, or a friend of a friend…) for at least three reasons:

(1) It is important to have 100% involvement of the entire board and staff members, so using participants to lead sessions or write on flip charts takes them out of the game.

(2) The selected facilitator must fully understand the main points presented in this article and have familiarity with applying them in actual planning sessions. (I will discuss some thoughts on selecting a facilitator in a later section.)

(3) You cannot be a prophet in your own land – your fellow board members and/or staff will resent you for being the strategic planning leader (even if you are experienced). Obtaining outside help eliminates this problem.

If possible, share copies of previous strategic plans (with the participants and the facilitator) as part of the preparation process that takes place well in advance of the event. Successful planning takes more time in preparation than it does in execution; this is a good rule of thumb to remember. If very little (or no) planning goes into the preparation, the participants will show up without direction and without having pondered creative solutions to some known issues to get their juices flowing; the event will likely be a disaster (and a waste of a lot of precious time).

Conducting The Advanced Preparation
Plenty of lead time is important; six months is not too long. Start by regularly discussing the need/desire of a strategic planning session at board and staff meetings. A letter to the board from the chair is a good way to officially announce that a strategic planning session is necessary. That letter should include a few examples of issues that are pressing the organization for strategic solutions. The board may wish to name a committee responsible for the planning (or, the board may already have a Strategic Planning Committee). Remembering that the plan is intended to be forward looking, it is important to involve up-and-coming board and staff members; their participation will be critical to the future implementation of the plan, so it is imperative they be involved in the development of it. Newer participants are often more reluctant to engage during the planning session because they conclude, perhaps rightly so, that there is a lot of history that they do not know. Remembering that strategic planning is forward looking, the facilitator must work hard to bring everybody into the dialogue because past history is less important than future strategy.

Let’s cover a few aspects of the advanced preparation checklist:

Participation
Remember that inviting the participants is easier than getting them to attend the session! This is one of the best reasons for beginning the discussions about the planning session six months in advance. My suggestion (this is a bit radical) is that it be made clear that if a participant cannot arrive on time and stay for the entire event, then they should not attend. This rule will make clear the importance of full participation. Reiterating this for several months prior to the session will make it less likely to have a misunderstanding on the day of the event. (If the organization is extremely proactive, then it already has a policy on board attendance and what is considered an excused absence.)

The Venue
How important is the selection of the place to hold the planning session? I would argue that it is more important than most people think (i.e., it is very important). I would strongly suggest that the venue be away from the normal meeting places. In addition, distractions like golf courses should be avoided; and, selecting a location where there is no cell phone reception takes care of a whole host of problems. Included in the selection of the venue are a number of other seemingly mundane issues, but planning in advance can make the difference between success and failure. A few examples:

Make sure the primary meeting room is extraordinary. It must be comfortable in every way, from the chairs to the location of the restrooms. If possible, select a meeting room with full technology tools; you want the session to be impressive.
Do not expect the attendees to bunk together. Secure enough rooms in advance to accommodate all of those who plan to attend. Private bathrooms are a must.
Food selections should be made in advance, particularly taking into account vegetarian preferences. Avoid caffeine and sugar as much as possible because studies have found that while both spike attention, there is ultimately an attention crash.
Decisions about alcohol, smoking, group recreation activities, etc. should all be made in advance. To keep things simple, I suggest avoiding all of the above.
Regular breaks – where some exercise is suggested and some quiet/alone time is provided – will increase the productivity of the output in the sessions. Make sure there is a printed agenda – distributed well in advance of the session – and spell out all events to the minute. Do not deviate from the schedule.

Length of the Planning Session
Determining the proper length of the session is important. I continue to believe that planning sessions end about the time they should be starting/continuing. Why? Because without a lot of advanced planning and attention to detail, the event begins sluggishly and does not naturally find a participative course until too late. However, I have never been to a multi-day ‘seminar’ that I thought was worth my time because I do not play golf and am not looking at seminars or planning sessions for my recreation and social outings. I feel strongly that the importance of the planning session should be kept paramount in the minds of the participants. There is no reason to draw things out just for the sake of having a lengthy planning session. How short is too short? A strategic planning session cannot be successfully held in one morning. How long is too long? Anything longer than a couple of days will cause a negative impact on the operations of the organization, given that the entire leadership team is at the strategic planning event. However, the best session I ever attended lasted the better part of three days. And, it was a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (intentionally selected so as not to interfere with normal operations).

Planning Session Case Study
An appropriately sized inn was selected – in a rural area and about 90 minutes out of town – and the organization rented the entire facility. It was extremely well planned, in advance, and all contingencies were considered (private rooms, meals, walking trails, multiple meeting rooms, no cell service, personal time built into the agenda, etc.) Written materials had been distributed weeks in advance. The facilitating team (outside consultants) had met individually with each participant prior to the event; the five-person consulting team arrived Friday morning to set up. There were 24 participants (ranging from the CEO to new managers), who arrived after lunch on Friday, checked into their rooms, and were in place for the afternoon (opening) session at 3 p.m. on Friday. Another session was conducted after dinner on Friday evening and multiple sessions were conducted on Saturday. The event concluded at 2 p.m. on Sunday. Of special note is that every participant left the session with a copy of the draft strategic plan that commemorated the first session in the planning process. Updates were added as they became available in the days, weeks, and months to come. Goals and objectives were established to produce measurable outcomes and revised as necessary. Organization-wide communications were important, so assignments were made to brief the entire employee population on the plan and its iterative changes. This strategic planning event remains the best I have ever attended. Contrast this brief description with the planning events you have attended and you will see the difference that commitment can make. And, important to mention: the resulting strategic plan completely transformed the organization, as was intended (the organization reduced its service territory and its product offerings, opting to focus on its core strengths). A better outcome could not be imagined.

The Cost of Strategic Planning
I do not believe in the old saying, “you get what you pay for.” Instead, I believe you will get no more than you pay for and you might not even get that much if you are not fully engaged with the service provider. Good strategic planning is not cheap. Many for-profit organizations cannot afford it, so it is no surprise that the non-profit organizations struggle mightily with the cost. A common practice is to have a friend-of-a-friend conduct a 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (with lunch!) planning session for free (or for a few hundred dollars). How successful is this approach? I would suggest not successful at all – and, potentially giving a negative impression to strategic planning because the session was so grossly inadequate. If this is true, then it is literally better not to have a strategic planning session that to have a bad one. Fees vary all over the board but, for example, the case study presented above cost $50,000 (negotiated down from $75,000 in conjunction with the experimentation of producing the draft plan during the session) – and that was over 15 years ago. I am familiar with a recent strategic plan for a non-profit organization – conducted by a national consulting firm specializing in the operations of that specific non-profit industry – and the cost was $75,000 about two years ago. However, take note: a donor sponsored 100% of the cost under the belief that without a strategic plan, the organization was in trouble. So, my suggestion would be to seek donor funding for the strategic planning costs. Also, I would suggest that the organization tout the existence of its strategic plan in its printed material and on its web site, thereby demonstrating that it is proactive and performs in a business-like manner, which can provide a competitive advantage during fundraising.

Selecting a Strategic Planning Consultant
The case study above mentions a five-person consulting team. This was part of an experiment that required that number of consultants because the end product, as explained above, was a draft copy of the strategic plan in the hands of every participant. This required the appropriate technology to be on hand (PC, projector, screen, copiers, etc.) and a typist who was the fastest I have ever seen. Part of the experiment was to enable the participants to be fully engaged in the conversation by not taking notes; instead, everything that was said was typed on the PC and projected on the screen. During breaks, the consulting team would group suggestions into logical sections. One consultant handled all contingencies. The other three took turns facilitating the various sessions to offer a distinct change of pace. During lunch on the closing day, copies were made for all participants and reviewed in the final session before adjournment. Admittedly, this was extreme; however, it certainly was effective. Generally speaking, however, find a consultant from a reference, meet with the person (or persons) to determine if you have a good personality fit (important), discuss the specific scope of work, ask for references (and check them), and ask to review copies of other strategic plans the consultant has led (these may be proprietary, but a reference can provide you with a copy – or at least let you look at a copy – so you can see the actual work product and evaluate it). Make sure that the consulting fee includes preliminary work and follow-up work. Also, make sure that the consultant’s background is a good fit for the type of organization (some people believe that a good facilitator can facilitate anything, but I disagree; there are always strengths and weaknesses in a person’s knowledge base).

The Dynamics of the Planning Session
The biggest challenge for any planning session is to keep the group ‘on point’ (i.e., on the subject) and to involve, ideally, everybody in the group in the dialogue. Speaking of ‘dialogue,’ the word is not interchangeable with ‘discussion’ – you want a dialogue not a discussion – the word discussion is derived from percussion which indicates ‘banging, striking, scraping, etc.’ (precisely the wrong connotation) and is usually an informal debate (also the wrong connotation). Dialogue, on the other hand, is a conversation and an exchange of ideas (not a debate). Managing personality differences, tenure differences (who knows what because of how long they have been associated with the organization), starting on time (even if everybody is not present!), ending on time (i.e., following the agenda), and recording the comments of the participants are rightful expectations for the client to have of the facilitator/consultant. Basic issues of respect (we are all adults) is the responsibility of each participant. I have never attended a strategic planning session where there was not at least one person who did not want to be there – and, unfortunately, it was obvious through words and body language – which projected a certain amount of negativity on the entire group. In cases such as this, it is up to the CEO to determine how the situation should best be handled; I recommend removing the negativity from the session.

Next Steps for Successful Implementation
Too often (if not the majority of the time!) “what happens at the strategic planning retreat stays at the strategic planning retreat…” While this may work in Vegas, it is a sorry outcome for serious strategic planning! Information must be shared after the retreat. My experience indicates that success comes from follow-up, follow-up, and more follow-up. I suggest a “champion” – an individual (or very small team) that will manage the implementation of the strategic plan – with unimpeded, direct access to the CEO. (If the CEO is not fully supportive then the strategic plan is doomed to failure.) Most importantly, I suggest that everyone involved understand, accept, and embrace the unequivocal fact that additional changes will be needed during the implementation phase. This is as it should be. Documenting these changes (and why), revising goals and objectives, timelines, assignments and providing printed copies to be inserted into all the individual strategic planning notebooks is the best way I know to keep the entire team involved in the process. (Remember, we are striving for a process, not an event…)

Conclusions/Recommendations
The purpose of this article was to share some observations over 30 years of strategic planning experience and to share suggestions for pre-planning that will improve the chances for a successful outcome. I remain concerned that the non-profit sector (more so than the government sector or the private sector) is typically not ready for strategic planning because they don’t have the funds to do an adequate job and the pre-planning is not thorough. A successful outcome from this article would be to get non-profit leaders to think about the subject of strategic planning more seriously – and to halt any existing plans until key elements of this article are at least considered. Entire books are written on the subject of strategic planning, so this article does not portend to be conclusive, only to make clear the importance of strategic planning and doing it right. Feedback and comments are invited.

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