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Strategic Planning: Assess for Success

Updated: Sep 20, 2021

Why Do Strategic Planning?

There is one universal acknowledgement regarding strategic planning: You can’t survive or thrive without it. As the vision of where we want to go and the roadmap to the future, it’s a constant reminder of what’s important and what isn’t. We all struggle with limited resources and allocating them effectively. Strategic planning is invaluable to help us identify resources and maximize their utilization. Your strategic plan is the cornerstone of effective governance.

Bob Ludwig, Principal at The Hale Group in Boston commented that the strategic planning process provides a look at opportunities for the greatest return on investment. “It is an intellectually stimulating exercise and promotes debates over ‘big picture’ issues. Through the process, we identify change agents that we need to cope with. We think through scenarios that can allow the organization to plan for the unexpected. It invites us to create change.”

As a leader in your organization, you know firsthand that the environment is rapidly changing. With freer trade and technology, we are in a global economy ? like it or not. With this rapid change, I would argue that your strategic plan needs to be reviewed and updated at least annually. According to Ludwig, “Change outdates your current model and your business approach.” He further observes that to survive it is essential to “read change and respond proactively to change.”

Determine Where You Are in the Marketplace

Typically, the planning process begins with a SWOT analysis. As a reminder, SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Strengths and weaknesses are internal factors. Opportunities and threats are external factors. This tool allows us to audit an organization and its environment. It helps participants to focus on key issues. Whether you do it yourself or hire a professional facilitator, your first focus is on how to gather input from your Board, your members and other stakeholders to analyze your position in the marketplace.

Today’s organizations face many challenges to the planning process. You are dealing with a wider variety of members with many competing interests. Washington has a unique cultural mix. The perspective of members can vary from Western Washington to Eastern Washington and even down to the county or city level. With members from varying cultures and different parts of the state, it may not be financially practical or logistically possible to bring your participants together in one place at one time with your facilitator.

Although the inability to get everyone together may be viewed as a disadvantage, it may actually have some advantages. All of us have participated in “group think.” In a group, many people make value judgments without realizing it. We all get into ruts in our thinking. Organizations develop a culture that makes it hard to question assumptions. The tendency is to jump to the tangible and tactical. It’s much more difficult to explore the underlying issues and discuss the implications. All of these factors inhibit spontaneity and original thinking.

Garnering Different Points of View

Whether you choose to facilitate the process yourself or hire someone, you need a carefully thought out process and structure. Before you embark on this journey, you have some key decisions to make.

What will be the most effective way to garner participation? According to Bernardo Aliaga, Programme Specialist, Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, UNESCO Paris, “When doing strategic planning you need a sound defined baseline. The most effective way I know of getting people from different cultures working together to define baselines is to make intensive use of visualization methods. No matter which is the field of activity: literacy NGOs or highly technical bilateral cooperation, all are at ease when working with charts, maps, cards. This can be better performed if a professional facilitator is available.”

A number of WSAE member organizations have found the Grove Process Model helpful. People need clear frameworks and roadmaps to guide their work in groups, be it simple formats for meetings, more involved processes for teams, organizational change, or cross boundary work. The Grove has developed an integrated set of process models relating to the different needs of managers, facilitators, and consultants who use our tools and methods.

We have used a variety of the Grove templates with committees, our Board, and staff with wild success,” commented Nicole Floyd Director of Finance & Administration for the Washington Society of CPA’s. “The process is fun and engaging, appeals to people of all styles and temperaments, and truly works! The Grove allows you to move from brainstorming to consensus to implementation seamlessly and very quickly. I have found it to be an invaluable tool these past five years.”

As an option to in-person meetings, you can use internet technology such as an online meeting provider. Whether you choose to use a method that solicits individual input or you utilize net meetings, you will need to develop provocative questions to stimulate thinking.

You also need to consider what type of technique you will use to gather input. One technique is individual writing. Whether working together as a group or in a disbursed situation, I like this for several reasons. It allows people to reflect privately, to prepare and collect thoughts. In addition, it creates an environment of working in “draft mode” rather than drawing conclusions. What I like best about this particular technique is the anonymity. Anonymity can make a crucial difference to people who feel too threatened to state their opinions out loud.

When asking for people to share their thoughts in writing, you should be sure to let them know that their writing will be kept confidential. Certainly, their input can be used in the aggregate but individual writing should never be shared. In the writing exercise you can ask several questions:

What’s really going on here?

What are some external forces or influences we haven’t considered?

What do we do better than anyone else?

Who are our competitors and what do they do better than we do?

Who are our potential partners and how do they serve our community?

For this exercise, you can divide your group into committees and assign a different task to each committee. Whether working with individuals or committees, you will need to provide detailed instructions. As an example, let’s take reviewing the annual convention as a major strategy for fundraising. You might say to your participants, “The needs of our members are more diverse than ever before and we have a significant percentage not satisfied with our annual convention. Your task is to clarify specifically what you don’t like about it. First, write two or three problems with the convention as it is currently. Then, write about how you feel it doesn’t meet your needs or expectations.” Let your people know that there is a deadline and make sure you follow up to insure they are clear about submitting their writing.

Structured activities such as this usually produce a wide range of perspectives. It is often helpful to give the group an opportunity to reflect on the whole, rather than one or two specific points. You or your facilitator should then prepare a list of the material that was generated. This can be used to stimulate discussion during a group or net meeting. Or, the material can be distributed for further input and reaction.

If you’re using an internet meeting for discussion, everyone can view the group’s collective output by scrolling through the list of items on their individual monitors. If you are not using that technology, a written list of ideas still allows people to see the initial thinking and then shift to a more meaningful discussion of issues that seem most challenging or compelling. This is when you’ll hear people in a diverse group say “I never realized that there were so many different ways of looking at this issue!” Or, “Now, I understand why we need to talk about this.”

No matter what technique you choose to gather input, an inclusive process is the best practice to either develop or review your strategic plan. I’ve worked with organizations that have either used staff or a small group to do this work and it was possible to “sell” it to the rest of the organization. My experience is that organizations that have included many of their members or stakeholders in the process seem to fare better in achieving their goals. By being inclusive, you build broad-based commitment and support for your plan.


Sherry S. Jennings, PhD
Founder and principal of Sound Governance. Sherry started Sound Governance because board leaders need a safe space.

Read more about sherry.
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