August 23, 2015
Strategic planning has evolved well beyond its origins in councils of war. In government, business, and nonprofits, strategic planning encompasses a variety of tools and processes to help organizational leaders and stakeholders review and clarify purpose, objectives, and operations. Regardless of context, when strategic planning works well, it produces at least three useful results:
While well known for our work on public, multi-stakeholder consensus building, CBI also works within individual organizations and across inter-agency partnerships on strategic planning. Many consulting organizations are well-positioned to provide expert analysis and recommendations on objectives or even to produce strategic plans for organizations. CBI’s approach is fundamentally different. We believe that the most insightful analytics and rigorous plans are only implement able if they reflect the input and gain the support of key organizational stakeholders: leaders, staff, board, and external partners.
Our experience is that it is possible for these stakeholders to work together well even in situations of high complexity and organizational stress. When an impartial facilitator understands the organization, its issues, and context, effective facilitation can enhance the credibility of the process with all stakeholders, maximize the value of input from different vantage points, and support appropriate boundaries and relationships between core decision makers and other stakeholders.
Collaborative strategic planning can help organizations improve their focus and impact, especially at moments of transition in leadership, external context, or available resources. CBI has developed a set of tools and approaches to help organizations look inward, outward, and forward at these key moments and to reach well-informed and widely-supported decisions that position the organization for future success.
Rather than coming in and prescribing what looks like a good strategic plan from the outside, CBI helps its clients work through essential questions together. We work with those most deeply involved in the organization or institution to explore and clarify a range of ideas and insights into what the organization needs to move forward. At the same time, we often recommend and seek external stakeholders’ input to inform the discussion and ensure that the organization can “see itself as others see it.”
Over the years, CBI has helped a very wide variety of groups think and work on strategic plans. We’ve been struck by commonalities in the kinds of questions that organizations and partnerships need to ask and answer, whether the substantive focus of the work is resilience for the Bay area, alternatives to juvenile detention in Massachusetts, aligning estuary conservation initiatives across the US, or setting global priorities for 33 United Nations development agencies.
Across these domains and many others, the core questions often focus on future direction (Where is the world headed? How well positioned are we to advance our mission given where the world is headed? How could we strengthen our positioning and impact?), priorities (What is it most important for us to accomplish?), and operations (How do we make best use of our resources? How do we work together better internally and with our partners?).
We structure the exploration of these questions carefully to ensure that stakeholders give their best advice to decision makers, see that their advice is being taken seriously, and understand the rationale for the final decisions. We bring a unique set of skills and knowledge to these processes. We draw on our experience working with multiple stakeholders, facilitating effective meetings, dealing with challenging behaviors, and helping groups realize successful outcomes.
Every strategic planning project teaches us new perspectives and lessons. Among those that rise to the top are:
Seize the opportunity to align during times of change. When leadership has changed or something has triggered a question about the future course of action for an organization, strategic planning provides a great opportunity to deliberately decide the best way to adjust priorities and activities in a forward-looking way.
Scale the commitment of planning resources to the challenges and opportunities facing the organization. Thoughtful up-front assessment of organizational goals, issues, and perspectives helps organizations identify realistic goals and resources for the strategic planning process. Effective strategic planning engages stakeholders to identify the key questions, generate good ideas, select among options and make hard choices on allocating organizational resources. Organizations that are in excellent financial and management health and delivering on their missions effectively may be able to use the strategic planning process as a relatively “light touch” visioning and option-generating exercise. Organizations facing significant financial and management challenges, with real questions about their operational effectiveness, will need to devote substantial time and resources to the process if they are to shift to realize the organization’s success.
Bring clarity. Honest self-reflection and problem solving is difficult both for individuals and for groups. People are sometimes afraid to hurt others’ feelings or acknowledge past or current problems, which leaves organizational challenges unspoken and unaddressed. Instead, surfacing those difficult topics in a thoughtful, deliberate way can be trans formative.
Recognize the key decisions and seek agreement among the key stakeholders. Strategic planning can fail where there is a lack of consensus around big issues. An organization needs appropriate leaders, whether board members or top management, to make hard decisions about needed adjustments to direction and programming. Senior leaders often put off hard decisions or make them unilaterally, rather than involving colleagues who are currently divided, even if their alignment is critical for longer-term success. By clearly articulating the decisions that need to be made, facilitating open discussion to develop and assess options, and maintaining clarity about authority and time frames for final decisions, CBI facilitators help leaders work through the most difficult issues and reach a constructive resolution.
Inspire confidence and excitement. A great strategic plan does more than set direction—it inspires the organization’s stakeholders, leaders and junior staff, external partners and clients to work together to achieve a set of goals that they find truly meaningful and understand as central to the organization’s mission. When those most centrally involved in developing a strategic plan feel that they have achieved a breakthrough in understanding, insight and goal setting, they become advocates for the plan and generate a sense of real excitement and a shared commitment in others. Truly effective strategic plans become touchstones that leaders and staff review periodically to be sure they are still on target.
In sum, by making the strategic planning process a true collaboration, CBI facilitators help organizations stretch to a level of vision and commitment that will motivate their stakeholders to see a future filled with great possibilities for impact and work together to realize it.