How to run a strategic planning process


How to run a strategic planning process

My first development of a strategic plan was back in 1998 for a real-estate company.  Since 1998 I have lead several strategic work process for major corporations and implemented several strategic plans of a company. There is a broad agreement among senior executives and scholars that strategic planning is a critical component of good management and governance.  Strategic planning helps assure that a company remains relevant and responsive to the needs of its business sector, and contributes to the company’s stability and growth. It provides a basis for monitoring progress, and for assessing results and impact. It facilitates new business development and opportunities. It enables an organization to look into the future in an orderly and systematic way. From a corporate governance perspective, it enables the Board of directors to set policies and goals to guide the company, and provides a clear focus to the CEO and the staff for strategy implementation and corporate government.

Most companies understand the need for annual strategy process and a strategy-focused work plan.  This is the basis for the CEO for setting priorities, organizing work, and assessing progress. A growing number of organizations goes beyond and requires that the group management develops annual objectives and operating plans which also include a systematic plan for resource development, organizational development, and in some cases board development. Most companies find it practical to define objectives for a 12-month period, and to design strategies to meet them.

Longer-range planning – planning beyond the next five or ten – often seems more difficult and less rewarding since the framework conditions change faster today than before. We also see that more and more companies start to work on rolling budgeting and strategic plans. With the external environment changing so rapidly, Board members and senior executives ask, how can we expect to develop strategy plans that will remain relevant?

In fact, strategic planning is no less important in a changing environment; it may well be more important.  We expect that the Norwegian Health sector in the coming years will go through major restructuring due to change of framework conditions both organizational due to major political reforms in Norway.

Senior executives within the health sector needs to be very clear to the politicians to address the need for change due to new political reforms and then work to address them through similarly clear corporate missions, priorities, target groups, and objectives. Strategic Planning is designed to help a company to define its vision for the future and then determine systematically how it will get there, understanding obstacles and figuring out ways to overcome them.

Longer-range planning requires some level of organizational stability. It is very difficult to plan in a crisis, and unrealistic to look five years ahead unless an organization has some confidence that it will exist next year, and that most of its key staff and its Board leadership will continue to be affiliated with the organization. Board and staff also need the time to plan, which means that they must not be using every minute to carry out functions required for survival. Moreover, while planning provides increased organizational definition, a sound base for planning is consensus concerning a well-defined mission statement and/or organizational goals – these must often be developed as a foundation for longer-term planning. It is also difficult to plan if the organization is so young or its leadership so new that they do not have a good sense of the community and of the broader external environment. Most new organizations, or groups which have undergone major institutional difficulties or change, find that they do best by first attempting to reach consensus on an organizational mission statement and then doing shorter-range planning, usually for a single year. Learning from that experience, they can begin a longer-term planning process.

Planning that focuses on a period of three years or more requires an organized, serious effort which takes time and energy. There may need to be a formal community needs assessment as input to planning. This is extremely valuable, but also demanding. Moreover, planning is not a one-time effort; any plan needs to be reviewed, monitored, and updated. The benefits to an organization can be significant — a clear focus, a sense of joint purpose and agreed-upon priorities, consensus on strategies, and a basis for measuring progress and impact.

The term strategic planning has become very popular in recent years. Many organizations now talk about doing strategic planning rather than long-range planning. Yet the difference between the two is not intuitively obvious, nor universally agreed upon. Following are typical definitions and explanations of the two terms:

Long-range planning:  The process by which the leaders of an organization determine what the organization wants to look like at the end of a specified period of time – usually three to five years – then use that vision to establish multi-year goals and objectives which describe what the organization wishes to accomplish, and develop programs, tasks, and timelines for achieving them. Long-range planning predicts future conditions and realities, internal and external, and plans how the organization can function effectively within them. Because it involves multi-year projections, it cannot be as specific as short-term or operational planning, which generates a work plan with detailed annual objectives, tasks, methods, timelines, and responsibilities. However, it tends to be more focused on specific objectives and timelines than strategic planning.

Strategic planning:  The process by which leaders of an organization determine what it intends to be in the future and how it will get there. To put it another way, they develop a vision for the organization’s future and determine the necessary priorities, procedures, and operations (strategies) to achieve that vision. Included are measurable goals which are realistic and attainable, but also challenging; emphasis is on long-term goals and strategies, rather than shortterm (such as annual) objectives. Strategic planning assumes that certain aspects of the future can be created or influenced by the organization. Strategic planning is ongoing; it is the process of self-examination, the confrontation of difficult choices, and the establishment of priorities.  Strategic planning involves charting a course that you believe is wise, then adjusting that course as you gain more information and experience.

Differences between strategic and long-range planning:  While closely related to long-range planning, strategic planning is generally considered to place a greater emphasis on strategies – on how the organization will achieve its vision – while long-range planning places greater emphasis on determining the vision.

There are many different models and action steps for strategic planning. One approach is summarized below. It assumes a cooperative effort between Board and staff, perhaps with a special strategic planning committee of Board members and staff taking responsibility for the effort. Some of the work can be done in committee, while Board and staff planning sessions or retreats are also likely to be required, both early and late in the planning process. Typical steps are described below, along with some suggested approaches for carrying out each step.  Frequently, Steps 1-3 occur before a strategic planning retreat, Steps 4-7 during the retreat, and Steps 8-10 after the retreat.

1.Agree on a strategic planning process. This may be done at a Board meeting with key staff present, or may require a special meeting or retreat, including Board, key staff, and some external stakeholders. At the session:

Provide an understanding of what strategic planning is and how it is done;

Discuss its potential value to the organization, in terms of providing a common vision and focus, with agreed-upon goals and strategies;

Consider the costs of doing strategic planning, in terms of staff and Board time and other resources – and what might need to be given up in order to develop a plan; if the organization is in crisis or is financially or organizationally unstable, it may be difficult or unwise to enter into a strategic planning process until the immediate problems and needs have been successfully addressed; Consider whether the organization is “ready” for a long-range plan or whether it may best focus on a short-term plan, perhaps doing a one-year plan and then undertaking longer-term planning at the end of that year;  If strategic planning seems appropriate, consider what procedures or steps can be used to establish and implement a strategic plan;  Agree upon a process and establish responsibilities for the various steps in the process, including at least one day (or several half-days or evenings) devoted to a Board and (all or senior) staff planning retreat or a series of planning meetings.

Except for a very small organization, it will probably be desirable to set up a strategic planning committee or task force. Choose participants carefully, assuring their commitment to the process and their willingness to devote significant time to the planning effort. Usually the coordinating group will include a mix of Board leaders and members, as well as senior and middle managers. Some groups also include a representative of technical and/or support staff. Representatives of stakeholders – funders, sister organizations, and allies – and perhaps former leaders of the organization or other resource people might also be included. The organization may also want to include an outside facilitator or consultant who will assist with the process and with preparation of the strategic planning document – or this may be done by staff.  Be sure to allocate sufficient staff time to the strategic planning process. It may be necessary to reduce the regular workloads or responsibilities of staff and Board members who are expected to play a key role in developing the strategic plan.

2. Carry out an environmental scan. This helps provide an understanding of how the organization relates to its external environment. The scan usually includes an external component — identifying and assessing opportunities and threats in the external environment — and an internal component — assessing organizational strengths and weaknesses. This process is often referred to as “SWOT”:  strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

  • The external component of the environmental scan should include a review of the target or service community and the broader environment in which the organization operates, to identify the opportunities and threats facing the organization. This might include the following:

Consider forces and trends in the broader community, political, economic, social, and sometimes technological. Look at changing demographics, political trends, community values, economic trends, the implications of new or changing laws and regulations affecting the organization, communications and other technological trends — and consider their impact on your organization and the population it serves.

You may want to assess current organizational performance in terms of financial and human resources (inputs), operating methods or strategies (processes), and results or outcomes (outputs). If the organization does not have extensive objective measures of its outcomes, perceived performance can be partially determined through asking clients and stakeholders. Try to understand how key players or stakeholders in the broader community — as well as constituents or clients — view the organization.

It is often valuable to identify critical success factors for the organization. This step is not always included in strategic planning, but can be very useful. Try to understand what factors are necessary to the future and continued success of the organization. These may be factors like relationship with target community/constituency, resources, program strategies, governance structure, and staff skills and style.

The organization might want to review or formalize organizational values and operating principles. Some organizations have written values and principles which guide their decision making and their ongoing activities. These can be very helpful in “defining” the organization.

A consultant can be hired to assist with the environmental scan, contacting stakeholders to provide an external view and staff to obtain an internal assessment. The result of the environmental scan should be an analysis of organizational strengths and weaknesses and external opportunities and threats. This may be oral or written, and requires careful review and discussion by the strategic planning committee. Often, your strategic planning retreat will begin with a presentation of results of the environmental scan. Sometimes, results are presented at a Board or Board-staff session prior to the retreat. In either case, the Board and staff should be familiar with the findings before strategic planning decisions are made.

3. Identify key issues, questions, and choices to be addressed as part of the strategic planning effort. This may mean specifying “strategic issues” or questions that the organization should address, and setting priorities in terms of time or importance. If there is little disagreement about issues and priorities, it may be possible to move immediately to the organizational vision and then goals. If there is no agreement on general directions and organizational goals, it may be important to explore issue priorities and identify critical choices. This might be done in several ways. For example:

  • Board and staff might be asked to identify strategic issues from the environmental scan, with individuals identifying a specified number of such issues and indicating why each is strategic, including the benefits of addressing it and the negative consequences of not addressing it.
  • The planning group or a consultant working with the group might work to identify strategic issues emerging from the environmental scan, and then prioritize them in terms of importance, timing, and feasibility.

Once Steps 1-3 have been completed, you are ready to develop a strategic planning agenda and schedule a one- to two-day or a series of shorter meetings.

4. Define or review the organization’s values, community vision, and mission. Be sure there is consensus on why the organization exists, what goals or outcomes it seeks to achieve, what it stands for, and whom it serves. If it has specific mandates –things it must do or not do based on its articles of incorporation or bylaws, or long-term contracts or grants – then these should be clearly defined. Consider beginning your strategic planning by agreeing on the following:

  • Organizational core values or operating principles – those beliefs or principles that guide the organization; these values are shared by Board and staff, strongly held, and not easily changed
  • Community Vision – your vision for the community; it might be viewed as your image of what the community you serve would be like if your values were shared and practiced by everyone. Note that this is your vision for the community, not your vision of what the organization will look like in three to five years or more (that comes later!)
  • Mission – the stated purpose for your organization’s existence; it might be viewed as your organization’s public statement of the contribution it promises to make to help accomplish the community vision.

Agreeing on values, vision, and mission is usually best accomplished as a part of a planning or at a special meeting; the process will usually take several hours, and should include Board and at least senior staff. Often, you will draft the values and mission statement and describe the vision as part of your strategic planning session, and then the Strategic Planning committee or task force will review and refine the specific language, and bring the refined language to the Board for approval.

5. Develop a shared vision for the organization. In some strategic planning efforts, a vision for the organization is developed after a vision for the community has been discussed — with the assumption that a shared organizational vision may be dependent upon a shared vision of what society should become. Whenever this is done, it is important to agree on where the organization wants to be in three to five years (It is often helpful to focus on where you want to be at the end of the period covered by the strategic plan).

For many Board and staff members, it makes sense to first develop a vision of where the organization wants to be in a specified number of years, and then define strategies that will help it get there. The vision might describe the organization broadly, in terms of its mix of programs, reputation or status inside and outside its primary target community, key accomplishments, and relationships with stakeholders; specific descriptions might be included in relation to service/target area, program scope and depth, funding, governance, staffing, relationships with other entities, visibility, etc. This form of “visioning” can be done in many ways; for example:

–          Small groups can physically draw their vision of the future, then describe it to the full group, and identify common elements, and use them to establish a joint vision.

–           Small groups can role play what they would want to be able to say about the organization’s major accomplishments and reputation to a newspaper reporter five years from now, then share the major components of their vision with the full group, again as a basis for developing a shared vision.  

–          Small groups can play the role of various supportive stakeholders – funders, clients, allies/collaborating organizations, the Board, the staff – and each develop a series of statements describing the organization as they would like to see it in a specified number of years. Then these visions can be shared and meshed. 

–          Individuals can complete a formal worksheet indicating where they see the organization in either broad or specific terms. For example: 

–          Broad categories. Describe the organization in five years, in terms of the following categories such as program, resources, status, relationships, institutional development, and governance; or Specific characteristics.  Describe the organization in five years, in terms of the following: target area, target populations, budget, percentage of funding from public and private sources, staff size and composition, staff/component structure, program areas, offices/locations, Board size and composition, relationship with the private sector, relationship with major local public agencies. 

Individuals would then share the information in small groups, reach some form of shared responses, then present them to the full group. The full group must then reach consensus on a shared vision.

  • If the organization is small, the full group can take turns describing the organization in terms of specified categories or topics (e.g., missions, program scope, resources, relationships), then consensus can be reached on major statements and categories.

The development of a shared vision is usually best done with both Board and staff involvement. For a small organization, a joint Board-staff process may be practical. For a large organization, a two-stage process might be useful, with staff first working together on a vision, then having the Board and key staff participate in a similar process, in which they review and incorporate the staff vision with their own.

6. Develop a series of goals or organizational status statements which describe the organization in a specified number of years – assuming it is successful in addressing its mission. It is usually a short step from the vision to goals – sometimes the statements describing the vision are essentially goal statements. It is extremely valuable to transform the vision into a series of key goals for the organization, preferably in the form of status statements describing the organization.

7. Agree upon key strategies to reach the goals and address key issues identified through the environmental scan. The major emphasis should be on broad strategies, including current and new program, advocacy, collaborative, or other approaches. These strategies should be related to specific goals or address several goals. The process requires looking at where the organization is now and where its vision and goals indicate it wants to be, and identifying strategies to get there. The Board needs to provide a broad view to guide this effort, while the planning group or staff can do much of the detailed analysis. Approaches might include the following:
  • Once the key issues to be addressed and the goals have been specified, the planning group, staff, or a consultant might look back at the SWOT results of the environmental scan, and identify changes in current strategies which may be required to reach the goals and address the issues. This might mean identifying potential new strategies or suggesting changes in emphasis or priority. These would be presented to the Board and key staff for discussion and decisions.
  • The planning group might review the planning process to date, and develop and present to the Board and key staff a series of alternative approaches or scenarios – for example, should the organization focus on community organizing or national-level advocacy; should there be increased decentralization or more centralization; should field offices receive more or less attention and resources, compared to the headquarters office. Based on the decisions made using these scenarios, strategies will be determined.

Whatever the specific approach used, specific criteria for evaluating and choosing among strategies should be agreed upon. They might include such criteria as the following:

Value – Will the strategy contribute to meeting agreed-upon goals?

Appropriateness – Is the strategy consistent with the organization’s mission, values, and operating principles?

Feasibility – Is the strategy practical, given personnel and financial resources and capacity?

Acceptability – Is the strategy acceptable to the Board, key staff, and other stakeholders?

Cost-benefit – Is the strategy likely to lead to sufficient benefits to justify the costs in time and other resources?

Timing – Can and should the organization implement this strategy at this time, given external factors and competing demands?

Based on these or other agreed-upon criteria, strategies can be evaluated and selected, or prioritized.

In agreeing upon strategies, the planning group should always consider the need to clearly define responsibilities for their implementation.

You are likely to complete Steps 4-7 during a strategic planning retreat. Someone a consultant, the Strategic Planning committee or task force, or a staff member will need to take the newsprint and notes from the meeting, the results of the environmental scan, and other relevant materials and begin draft a written strategic plan. Once this draft has been prepared, the next step can begin.

8. Develop an action plan that addresses goals and specifies objectives and work plans on an annual basis. Once the longer-term elements of a strategic plan have been developed, it is time to ensure a specific work plan to begin implementation. Strategic planning recognizes that strategies must reflect current conditions within the organization and its environment. Thus it is rare to attempt to develop detailed annual objectives except for the first or perhaps the first and second year covered by the strategic plan. However, annual action plans are needed. Annual program objectives should be time-based and measurable. The annual plan may be a part of the strategic plan or may be an annual addendum to it.

Objectives and work plans for the Board and for the institution as a whole are as important as program-related ones. Most projects have specified annual objectives and work plans because of funder requirements, while only a strategic plan is likely to require a Board to think about its desired composition, skills, and involvement, or about organizational structure and administrative systems.

Developing objectives and annual work plans requires both Board and staff input, with staff often taking major responsibility for program-related goals and objectives once the Board has defined organizational goals, and the Board developing goals and objectives related to governance.

The Board must approve the action plan, while staff (with consultant help, if desired) can do much of the development of the written plan. This is an area of staff expertise, since implementation of programs and other strategies based on policies set by the Board is a staff function.

9. Finalize a written strategic plan that summarizes the results and decisions of the strategic planning process. There is no set format, but be sure to include the outputs of each major step. The box at the end of this document provides one possibility.

10. Build in procedures for monitoring, and for modifying strategies based on changes in the external environment or the organization. Be sure progress towards goals and objectives and use of strategies is monitored regularly, with strategies revised and annual objectives developed yearly, based on the progress made, obstacles encountered, and the changing environment. Have procedures for taking advantage of unexpected changes such as more sympathetic elected or appointed officials, improvements in the economy, changes in local funder priorities, or changes in the target population. Define annual objectives at the start of each year. Look back to see what progress has been made in critical success factors. Use the plan as a compass, but not an inflexible blueprint for action.

The Board plays a critical role in reviewing progress and assuring that strategies are changed as appropriate; staff should carry out the documentation required to generate ongoing data for this review, as well as carrying out periodic monitoring and making reports to the Board. If the organization has a planning and evaluation unit, it should play an ongoing role in monitoring progress towards goals and objectives, and analysing reasons for shortfalls in accomplishments.

The steps listed above are just one approach to developing and implementing a strategic plan. Strategic planning is a process which lends itself to a joint Board-staff effort. Often, there is a joint Board-staff retreat early in the process, a Board-staff committee to oversee the entire planning process, a staff planning session with a strong focus on the action plan, and a Board session to review and approve the plan. The retreats are in addition to committee meetings and ongoing staff work. The key planning sessions often work best when facilitated by an outsider knowledgeable about the organization or about community-based organizations generally. A facilitator should be someone skilled in group processes and experienced in strategic planning who is non-directive, committed to assuring full discussion of issues but also task-oriented and able to move the process forward. Sometimes a former Board member or Executive Director can fulfil this role. Some foundations provide management assistance grants that can support consultant and other support for the entire process and make possible an in-depth environmental scan.

If your organization is relatively new, your first strategic plan is likely to be for a three-year period. After that, you may want to develop a new strategic plan every five years. Be sure to document not only the plan but also the process, so you can improve upon it with each cycle.

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