Planning for success: Top ten strategic planning tips

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Anyone who has experience in managing nonprofit organizations understands the importance of excellence in strategic planning. Every few years, or at least upon the occurrence of a fundamental change in the organization, it is essential to sit back with the right internal and external stakeholders and take stock of where the organization has come from, where it currently stands, and where it is going in light of its opportunities and challenges.

Based on my experience with dozens of planning exercises across the private, public and nonprofit sectors, I would like to suggest the following ten key practices to developing and implementing excellence in strategic planning.

1. Have a plan to develop the plan

Like any major project, it is essential to have objectives, a timeline, a budget and the right leader(s) and team to develop your strategic plan. I’ve seen too many planning exercises sub-optimized, derailed and / or delayed simply due to the lack of planning.

2. Involve the right people

Building on the first point, take the time to think about and engage the right people both internally and externally in the development of your plan. In order to do this, the CEO / executive director (ED) and chair of the board of directors need to develop a list of staff, board members, and external stakeholders and specialists (such as management consultants, accountants and lawyers) whose expertise and experience will be essential to the successful development and implementation of the plan.

Consider dividing this larger group into a core team that is fundamentally involved in all aspects of the plan and then supporting rings of other stakeholders who are brought in as required to tap their knowledge and build engagement. The core team usually consists of the board, CEO / ED, the CFO, and the head of the planning department if the organization is large enough to have this unit.

All staff should participate in the exercise at some point, to identify and develop solutions to the organizations main current and potential challenges. I suggest this could be done in team exercises scheduled over the necessary number of half days. The CEO / ED should also ensure all staff are kept informed of the progress of the entire planning project.

Other key stakeholders from the client and supporter network should be involved in at least a half day session to solicit their opinions and advice and like staff, they should be kept advised of overall progress.

Many organizations engage management consultants to assist in the development of the plan, primarily as facilitators for the group exercises, but also to provide advice as to the form and content of the plan and to lead or help in writing the plan. Although it might be tempting to skip this step out of a concern for costs and a belief that internal staff will have the time to complete this work, it has been my experience that it is generally very difficult for staff to have both the time and the experience to successfully develop and implement a new strategic plan while performing their day-to-day work.

Finally, try to make the planning process enjoyable. Although often unavoidable due to time and budget constraints, try to avoid all-day planning sessions – people lose interest and effectiveness after a half-day. Select your planning team leaders wisely and consider their ability to engage staff and stakeholders. Don't forget to build time into the process for veterans at all levels of the organization to share their knowledge of the organization's history and culture. Have them give five to ten minute presentations of these stories - this is often particularly appreciated by those who are new to the organization and also adds to the learning benefits of the planning process.

3. Take the time necessary but have a hard due date

Building on the first two points, don't be tempted to circumvent the time and involvement necessary to develop an excellent plan. I’ve seen this mistake made time and time again, resulting in plans that fail to engage, fail to be implemented and fail to provide focused and wise direction. At the same time, don’t fall to the other extreme - a planning process that drags on forever and loses steam and effectiveness.

Have a clear deadline, as well as the necessary leadership (at the staff and board level) to ensure the timeline is being met and that all participants properly prioritize the process during the months that will be required to complete it.

A key point to remember: leaders are often ahead of the game in terms of having put in the thought about where the plan should be (and is) going. These same leaders often lie awake over many nights thinking about all the variables, contingencies and solutions that affect the plan. When other stakeholders are brought into the process, they frequently are not at that same place on the planning path and will need the time and necessary information to get there. As a leader in the planning process, remember this and make sure you build in the time required for others to get up-to-speed.

4. Make sure the plan is implementable, operable and reviewed

Probably the most frequent problem I have seen with strategic plans is that they are developed at a high level with great analysis and recommendations but without sufficient thought being given to implementation and ongoing operations and review. The result is that the CEO / ED and staff then have to figure out how to implement and operate with strategic initiatives and performance measures and objectives that are impossible to carry out. Timelines and budgets have to be revisited, plans are delayed and staff can become discouraged.

The main reasons for this problem are either that people working on the plan do not have sufficient experience with implementation, operations and review and / or are not provided with sufficient time to fully develop the plan and / or are simply not interested in building the plan out fully.

The best way to avoid this problem is to involve senior staff and outside experts who have sufficient experience with implementation, operations and review, and ensure the plan is critically analyzed by them. Provide these staff and experts with the right support to ensure they are not hesitant to be constructively critical of high-level recommendations that are not feasible in terms of time, budget and effectiveness or that have not been sufficiently thought out.

5. The budget is a key part of the plan

One of the most critical components of making sure a plan is implementable and operable is to ensure the related budget process moves forward hand-in-hand with the plan. The ongoing revenue projections and implementation and operating costs of the planned initiatives must be thought out while the plan is being developed. Not doing so will, without fail, result in problems with the plan's implementation and the organization's ongoing operations. This parallel budget process will be taxing on your finance staff as they will not only have to develop and review the annual budget as they do every year, but also analyze and cost the impact of the changes to the organization proposed by the plan. You may need to engage additional assistance from outside resources if your finance team is not able to handle the workload.

Including the budget as part of the strategic planning process always adds a dose of reality and sharpens the organization's focus in a very effective manner. Doing so also often highlights the plan's shortcomings or other areas for improvement within your financial processes, particularly cash flow projections.

6. Iterate until it's done

Plans have to be iterated. No one can develop an excellent plan in one sitting or writing. Plans need to be reworked at least 2-3 times, and often more, with enough input from the team involved to ensure the plan is comprehensive and workable. Readers with sufficient experience in management will understand that managing an organization is a constant balancing act of all its key functions (planning, finance, HR, marketing, operations, risk management, IT, etc.), as well as the required staff, other resources and processes. A strategic plan must address all of these diverse elements in order to assess how each strategic initiative will impact the key management functions, resources and processes.

7. Don’t measure too much – measure the essentials

All planning exercises must have measurable objectives and related evaluations. My favourite framework for developing these measures and objectives are the Strategy Maps and Balanced Scorecard frameworks developed by Kaplan and Norton. The development of these frameworks require an organization to look at both the lag (mainly financial and social objectives) as well as lead (client, process and internal resources) indicators required for success.

However, no matter which measurement framework is put in place, a common result from planning exercises is a plethora of objectives and measures. They are frequently all valid - and yet, the reality is that no organization, no matter how large, has the human and technical resources required to gather, report on and review the information required to measure more than probably a dozen objectives and measures. Take the time necessary to boil this initial list down to the essential few required to truly measure the progress and success of your organization. This is a fundamental element in planning and an exercise that will lead your planning team to a much greater understanding of the organization and its key success factors.

8. Cascade and measure

Once you have completed the exercise outlined in the previous step, ensure you cascade the objectives and measures into the organization at the board level, at the CEO / ED level, at the department level and at the individual level through related performance management. A key to success in implementing the new strategic plan is to ensure that every part of the organization understands their role in the process and that this participation is both measured and rewarded in a meaningful way.

9. Have different versions of your plan for your different stakeholders

Every organization will have to decide how many different versions of the final plan to create for the different stakeholders involved. A version will probably be required for the board and CEO / ED, perhaps another for staff, and maybe a third to be shared with the outside world. The differences in each version will be based on what aspects of the plan need to remain confidential, depending on the audience, and what parts of the plan are required for good governance.

In addition, a summary of the plan is needed for communication as well as implementation. A one-page summary developed using the previously mentioned Strategy Map and Balanced Scorecard frameworks from Kaplan and Norton is a good option, as it will visually present the strategy in a manner that is more readily absorbed and understood by different audiences. Have communication sessions with the different audiences to present the plan and continue their involvement in its implementation, operation and review.

10. Update and keep it relevant

Don’t spend all of the time and resources necessary to develop a plan only to then park it on some forgotten shelf in the ED's office. Keep it relevant through the measurement and review of objectives and measures that are cascaded into performance management at all levels of the organization, as well as through an annual planning exercise where stakeholders are asked whether there are any major aspects of the plan that should be readdressed in light of changes in the internal and external environment. No plan will remain unchanged during its implementation period – the world changes too fast and even with the most carefully considered planning, there are aspects of the plan that will need to be adjusted.

There are many other aspects to working through a successful strategic planning process, but I trust these recommendations will assist you and your organization in improving your current process.

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