Over 16 years, some of the common reasons we’ve heard that explain why an organization created a strategic plan but didn’t implement it are, “the environment changed in ways we didn’t anticipate”, “the plan ultimately wasn’t a good fit for what we hoped to accomplish”, “the organization got distracted by unexpected events and just never got to it” or “staff who created the plan left the organization and it didn’t resonate with staff who stayed”. While each of these reasons may sound like reasonable explanations, they seem insufficient. When I hear that an organization created a strategic plan but didn’t implement it, the first question that comes to my mind is what got in leadership’s way? And by leadership I mean board members and of staff jointly. Like the finesse of an energizing orchestra conductor, good strategic plans are living documents that shift and change with an organization’s needs. Rather than being obsolete tomes as soon as their ink has dried, they are meant to be dynamic and evolving guides relevant to the organization’s future. Therefore, the commitment to using a strategic plan as an organizational guide is ultimately about leadership.
Indeed, the process of developing, regularly refreshing and being guided by a strategic plan offers multifaceted leadership opportunities. In this Part 1 of a two part nugget we’re covering leadership opportunities in the design and communication about a strategic planning process. In Part 2, we’ll explore leadership opportunities around gathering input from diverse sources and making strategic decisions.
In the design phase for a strategic planning process, the first leadership opportunity is in the inception of the idea itself of developing a new strategic plan. We believe top notch strategic planning is inclusive. That means involving board members and staff together in creative and stretching thinking that ultimately aligns the whole organization to move in the same direction. Another aspect of inclusivity from the beginning is reaching deeply into an organization to invite staff who may not commonly participate in this kind of planning activity. This invitation is a professional development opportunity. It invites staff to contribute their ideas about the organization’s future and experience what happens in a productive teamwork process. In our experience, some of the richest and freshest ideas come from dedicated staff who are on the frontlines of an organization’s work daily.
The next leadership opportunity is appreciating the full range of talent and perspective that an inclusive group brings to planning conversations. One way for leaders to show this appreciation is offering a variety of options for staff to participate in the strategic planning process. For example, as part of connecting with the organization’s identity, at a staff meeting invite staff from all parts of the organization to share their own stories about delivering on the organization’s mission or living out its core operating values. Mission stories help affirm and reveal the organization’s deep purpose. They can also help reveal or clarify core competencies or aspirations for new competencies that may become part of the organization’s new strategic direction.
During a whole strategic planning process an important role for leaders is co-creating expansive space for fresh thinking. There are a variety of ways to design a process with this expansive space in mind. For example, one way is a leader holding back their own ideas to let others’ ideas come to the forefront first and then being a catalyst to pull many ideas together.
A second way of encouraging, by design, inclusiveness and expanded thinking for the strategic plan is by forming cross-organizational work groups that use one of three different approaches to inspire fresh thinking. One option is imagining alternative “what if” strategic scenarios. Another option is brainstorming different goals and proposing different ways of achieving them. A third option is bringing clarity to the organization’s most strategic challenges and generating different ways of addressing them. The strategic thinking approach or combination of approaches chosen is a leadership decision when designing the strategic planning process.
One other important leadership consideration in the design phase is the approach to communicating about the process within the organization, and with partners and key supporters. By sharing information about the strategic planning process design from the beginning, and the results of the various strategic planning conversations, leaders build trust in the process and the emerging ideas, The more information shared with the organization about the process as it’s unfolding, the more time board members and staff have to get comfortable with stretch ideas. In this way, when decisions are made about what goes into the final strategic plan there are few to no surprises, resulting in support rather than resistance.
Strategic planning is not just an exercise in deciding the direction of an organization, its goals, and its implementation plans. Strategic planning is an organizational leadership opportunity. Individually, every participant can influence the process with their positive mindset, willingness to listen to others ideas, and being thoughtful and creative about how those ideas are used in the plan. The opportunity for this kind of influence and support starts with a commitment from leadership to design an open and engaging planning experience.
If there is a strategic planning process in your organization’s near future – either the update of an existing plan or the first effort in a long time to develop a new plan – the design phase opens up important leadership opportunities. What are your ideas for making your organization’s next strategic planning process inclusive and expansive in its strategic thinking approach?