The When, Why and How of Strategic Planning

By Tom Adams, Director, Succession and Sustainability

Strategic planning gets mixed reviews from boards and executives. For some, there is a groan and a desire to avoid it as long as possible. For others, there is excitement and energy in the possibility of creative attention to direction and focus. This article offers board leaders and executives practical suggestions on how to ensure that strategic planning is done well at the right time. Making smart choices about strategic planning leads to a happy board and staff who are engaged and energized by both the process and results. While this sounds like nirvana, here are some choice points to increase your gains and joys from strategic planning.

Before looking at the key choice points, here are some reminders helpful to deciding when and how to plan. Strategic planning is;

  • Intended as a creative and iterative process that leads to board members and staff being on the same page about organizational direction, strategies to get there and how results are defined;
  • A process for imagining new possibilities and opportunities, clarifying roles to achieve results, and being intentional about human and financial resources needed for success; and
  • An orientation which provides a stronger position for success, not a destination. This allows leaders to be flexible and nimble as the environment changes.

Strategic planning does not always look the same. Sometimes it is about how to manage critical issues. Other times the focus is imagining alternative futures at a crossroad and deciding which to take (scenario planning). At other times it is about refining goals and is done in a series of goal setting meetings. And still others the primary purpose is alignment of board and staff and clarifying roles and accountability.

Choice 1: Is this the time? What is desired result?

Before deciding to launch a planning process, we have found it useful to convene a small working group of board and staff to explore with open minds what are the big strategic questions facing the organization. Reaching clarity about the 1-5 big questions sharpens the picture on whether this is the right time and what process is needed to address these questions. The board and staff can be invited into a process aimed at answering these questions and determining if there is a desire to move forward and if so to what end.

Choice 2: Reviewing our story: are we clear and aligned around mission, vision and values?

Most leaders have spent more time on fine tuning mission statements than they want to admit. So there is resistance when looking at the basics of mission, vision and values. We understand that push back. Unfortunately, it is true that if you don’t know where you are going, you probably won’t get there. Every leader is entrusted to advance the good of the organization. There are creative ways to review and affirm or tweak mission, vision and values that are fun and energizing. Skipping this step is risky.

Choice 3: What’s our focus and do we need facilitation help?

Your discussion about the key strategic questions and end results will inform the simplicity or complexity of the process you may need. If the process design and strategic focus isn’t clear, a conversation with consultants will highlight your options and help you decide on the kind of help you might need. There are advantages to a simple process by a skilled volunteer facilitator when that is called for. There are also times when the investment in a facilitator will increase odds of answering key questions and mapping a way forward that is exciting and doable.

Choice 4: How do we keep our plan alive and accessible as a rudder?

Strategic plans at their best inform every board agenda and every staff person’s job description and annual work plan. They focus and align the energy of everyone in the organization around a vision for success and the emerging path towards that vision.

For more on how to make the most of strategic planning, listen to our podcast, Strategic Planning: What is the Best Approach?.

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