I wish I could count the number of times I have attended a non-profit strategic planning session, or discussed the need to have (or update) one in a board meeting, or been invited to serve as the facilitator. It has always – always – struck me that the strategic planning session should just be starting about the time that it is actually ending (e.g., too much time is wasted at the beginning and then a frenzy results at the end). The purpose of this article is to outline some observations over 30 years of strategic planning experience and to share suggestions that will improve the chances for a successful outcome.
Holding a Strategic Planning Session
At some point in time, every member of a non-profit board is going to hear the suggestion: “let’s hold a strategic planning session!” from a fellow board member or staff member. It’s not a bad idea but, unfortunately, it’s often a waste of time and produces no measurable outcomes. I want to share some observations and thoughts about strategic planning – invite debate – and see if we can come up with some guidelines that make the investment of time worthwhile. I have often said that strategic planning is a ‘process’ and not an ‘event’ – and I still very much believe that statement is true. However, maybe I should also add the caveat that a successful ‘process’ does indeed require an ‘event’ – or series of events – which is precisely the point. If you agree with my belief that the event often ends about the time it should be starting, then you would have to agree that additional follow-up after the event is required in order to create a meaningful strategic plan because the plan stopped short of completion during the original event. And a lot of time was used inefficiently, which also makes people reluctant to participate in the future.
A Working Document
Without a doubt, the primary way that I judge a successful strategic plan is by seeing a copy of it a year after the ‘event.’ If it’s a bit too dusty (which is often said in jest, but is true!) and if the pages are in pristine condition, then the event that created the plan was obviously not successful in motivating action. However, if the copy is dog-eared, marked up, added to, pages tagged, and otherwise well-used; then the event was super successful because a ‘process’ was indeed born and the need for ongoing action was instilled. In my opinion, successful outcomes are too rare in the strategic planning ‘implementation’ phase. The copy of the strategic plan that I described as a success is one that has become a working document, which is what planning is all about.
From an analytical standpoint, one way to define something is to determine what it is not. Strategy is different from ‘tactical’ or ‘operational’ (which is actually performing a task). Strategy is more subjective and cerebral; it involves thinking about an issue in broader terms than usual; thinking about circumstances that do not currently exist (i.e., future oriented) and determining how to adapt the organization to benefit from those predicted opportunities or avoid anticipated threats. Often, it involves thinking about an issue totally differently than ever before (which is VERY hard to do). Strategy development is not the same as operations implementation. For example, when I have been invited to ‘do’ strategic planning for an organization, I always ask if there is an Operating Plan; i.e., if you don’t know how to perform your core business every day (Operating Plan), why would you want to spend time working on a future-oriented process (Strategic Plan)? Strategy (highly subjective) is the opposite of operational (highly objective/defined/specific). Objective is ‘cut and dried’ – there is a procedure/process/outcome that arises from certain actions, done at certain times, in a certain way to produce known/certain outcomes. We already know if we do these certain things what we will get. Most people can adequately perform what they are taught/instructed. However, developing strategy – even the process of thinking about it – is very different. A strategic planning session led by a ‘doer’ instead of a ‘strategist’ and ‘critical thinker’ will yield disappointing results; however, ‘doers’ can be very helpful in participating in the development of strategy if they are properly guided. A couple of very simple examples of strategic vs. operational issues will make the point:
Operational – How are we going to make payroll next month?
Strategic – How do we need to adapt our operations to comply/excel with the recent changes for non-profits by Congress?
Operational – We need to add a new program to our existing series.
Strategic – We need to add a new series to cover new topics that will take our organization in a new direction.
Operating Plans Are Important
Let me be quick to tout the benefits of an Operating Plan. Properly executed, an Operating Planning Session can provide or refine specific guidance/clarification/policy on any number of day-to-day issues that really can be a big help when running the organization. The primary difference between strategic and operating (which is a huge difference) is that operating plans deal with the ‘here and now’ – with processes and policies that will improve the current business function – strategic plans, simply put, engage the participants in thought processes meant to challenge the current business function by looking into the future and assessing opportunities, threats, weaknesses, and strengths. A good Operating Plan can minimize daily confusion/questions about the manner in which specific job functions should be conducted. The ‘event’ of operations planning – getting the appropriate team together to discuss, debate, and decide the issues – is, in-of-itself, a very worthwhile team-building and clarifying session (if properly planned and executed). While Operating Plans are beyond the scope of this article, I wanted to make sure they were mentioned in a positive context.
The Mission Statement and The SWOT Analysis
Unfortunately, most strategic planning sessions seem to begin with either a review of the mission statement or a SWOT analysis. Both are usually ‘deal-busters’ in that they bog down the process of innovative thinking for strategic planning. For example, unless the core business of the organization has been totally disrupted (e.g., by lack of funding or policy, political, social, or technology changes), then the existing mission statement should be in reasonably good condition. To delve into the mission statement – and debate specific words and placement within the text – sucks the life out of the planning session and can often pit individuals against each other right from the start over silly things like wordsmithing. Not only is this unfortunate, but I would suggest that it is totally unnecessary. How can you revise a mission statement until you go through the rigors of the strategic planning process and determine whether or not there are bona-fide strategic issues worth pursuing? My preference is to hold the mission statement for a separate planning meeting after the strategic plan has at least been through an initial rough draft process. Perhaps a good analogy is to look at the mission statement from the back end – maybe it should be thought of as more of an executive summary?
Preparation For The Planning Session Is Critical
There is probably no exercise that requires more preparation than strategic planning. Why? Because the participants must be the right ones (those with authority and accountability), the purpose of the exercise must be made very clear (to stay ‘on point’ and eliminate confusion and fear), and the process must be known and engaging in advance (so participants can be prepared to contribute their very best). The most obvious difference between a private-sector strategic planning session and one for a non-profit organization is the inclusion of volunteers, namely the board of directors. The good news is that the planning session will include a diversity of opinion; the bad news is that most board members have probably been through some type of strategic planning before and have preconceived notions about the process based on their previous experiences (hence, the importance of preparing for the session in advance). I will discuss the dynamics of the volunteer participants in a later section.
I strongly recommend using an experienced professional outside facilitator (not a staff member, a board member, or a friend of a friend…) for at least three reasons:
(1) It is important to have 100% involvement of the entire board and staff members, so using participants to lead sessions or write on flip charts takes them out of the game.
(2) The selected facilitator must fully understand the main points presented in this article and have familiarity with applying them in actual planning sessions. (I will discuss some thoughts on selecting a facilitator in a later section.)
(3) You cannot be a prophet in your own land – your fellow board members and/or staff will resent you for being the strategic planning leader (even if you are experienced). Obtaining outside help eliminates this problem.
If possible, share copies of previous strategic plans (with the participants and the facilitator) as part of the preparation process that takes place well in advance of the event. Successful planning takes more time in preparation than it does in execution; this is a good rule of thumb to remember. If very little (or no) planning goes into the preparation, the participants will show up without direction and without having pondered creative solutions to some known issues to get their juices flowing; the event will likely be a disaster (and a waste of a lot of precious time).
Conducting The Advanced Preparation
Plenty of lead time is important; six months is not too long. Start by regularly discussing the need/desire of a strategic planning session at board and staff meetings. A letter to the board from the chair is a good way to officially announce that a strategic planning session is necessary. That letter should include a few examples of issues that are pressing the organization for strategic solutions. The board may wish to name a committee responsible for the planning (or, the board may already have a Strategic Planning Committee). Remembering that the plan is intended to be forward looking, it is important to involve up-and-coming board and staff members; their participation will be critical to the future implementation of the plan, so it is imperative they be involved in the development of it. Newer participants are often more reluctant to engage during the planning session because they conclude, perhaps rightly so, that there is a lot of history that they do not know. Remembering that strategic planning is forward looking, the facilitator must work hard to bring everybody into the dialogue because past history is less important than future strategy.
Let’s cover a few aspects of the advanced preparation checklist:
Remember that inviting the participants is easier than getting them to attend the session! This is one of the best reasons for beginning the discussions about the planning session six months in advance. My suggestion (this is a bit radical) is that it be made clear that if a participant cannot arrive on time and stay for the entire event, then they should not attend. This rule will make clear the importance of full participation. Reiterating this for several months prior to the session will make it less likely to have a misunderstanding on the day of the event. (If the organization is extremely proactive, then it already has a policy on board attendance and what is considered an excused absence.)
How important is the selection of the place to hold the planning session? I would argue that it is more important than most people think (i.e., it is very important). I would strongly suggest that the venue be away from the normal meeting places. In addition, distractions like golf courses should be avoided; and, selecting a location where there is no cell phone reception takes care of a whole host of problems. Included in the selection of the venue are a number of other seemingly mundane issues, but planning in advance can make the difference between success and failure. A few examples:
Make sure the primary meeting room is extraordinary. It must be comfortable in every way, from the chairs to the location of the restrooms. If possible, select a meeting room with full technology tools; you want the session to be impressive.
Do not expect the attendees to bunk together. Secure enough rooms in advance to accommodate all of those who plan to attend. Private bathrooms are a must.
Food selections should be made in advance, particularly taking into account vegetarian preferences. Avoid caffeine and sugar as much as possible because studies have found that while both spike attention, there is ultimately an attention crash.
Decisions about alcohol, smoking, group recreation activities, etc. should all be made in advance. To keep things simple, I suggest avoiding all of the above.
Regular breaks – where some exercise is suggested and some quiet/alone time is provided – will increase the productivity of the output in the sessions. Make sure there is a printed agenda – distributed well in advance of the session – and spell out all events to the minute. Do not deviate from the schedule.
Length of the Planning Session
Determining the proper length of the session is important. I continue to believe that planning sessions end about the time they should be starting/continuing. Why? Because without a lot of advanced planning and attention to detail, the event begins sluggishly and does not naturally find a participative course until too late. However, I have never been to a multi-day ‘seminar’ that I thought was worth my time because I do not play golf and am not looking at seminars or planning sessions for my recreation and social outings. I feel strongly that the importance of the planning session should be kept paramount in the minds of the participants. There is no reason to draw things out just for the sake of having a lengthy planning session. How short is too short? A strategic planning session cannot be successfully held in one morning. How long is too long? Anything longer than a couple of days will cause a negative impact on the operations of the organization, given that the entire leadership team is at the strategic planning event. However, the best session I ever attended lasted the better part of three days. And, it was a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (intentionally selected so as not to interfere with normal operations).
Planning Session Case Study
An appropriately sized inn was selected – in a rural area and about 90 minutes out of town – and the organization rented the entire facility. It was extremely well planned, in advance, and all contingencies were considered (private rooms, meals, walking trails, multiple meeting rooms, no cell service, personal time built into the agenda, etc.) Written materials had been distributed weeks in advance. The facilitating team (outside consultants) had met individually with each participant prior to the event; the five-person consulting team arrived Friday morning to set up. There were 24 participants (ranging from the CEO to new managers), who arrived after lunch on Friday, checked into their rooms, and were in place for the afternoon (opening) session at 3 p.m. on Friday. Another session was conducted after dinner on Friday evening and multiple sessions were conducted on Saturday. The event concluded at 2 p.m. on Sunday. Of special note is that every participant left the session with a copy of the draft strategic plan that commemorated the first session in the planning process. Updates were added as they became available in the days, weeks, and months to come. Goals and objectives were established to produce measurable outcomes and revised as necessary. Organization-wide communications were important, so assignments were made to brief the entire employee population on the plan and its iterative changes. This strategic planning event remains the best I have ever attended. Contrast this brief description with the planning events you have attended and you will see the difference that commitment can make. And, important to mention: the resulting strategic plan completely transformed the organization, as was intended (the organization reduced its service territory and its product offerings, opting to focus on its core strengths). A better outcome could not be imagined.
The Cost of Strategic Planning
I do not believe in the old saying, “you get what you pay for.” Instead, I believe you will get no more than you pay for and you might not even get that much if you are not fully engaged with the service provider. Good strategic planning is not cheap. Many for-profit organizations cannot afford it, so it is no surprise that the non-profit organizations struggle mightily with the cost. A common practice is to have a friend-of-a-friend conduct a 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (with lunch!) planning session for free (or for a few hundred dollars). How successful is this approach? I would suggest not successful at all – and, potentially giving a negative impression to strategic planning because the session was so grossly inadequate. If this is true, then it is literally better not to have a strategic planning session that to have a bad one. Fees vary all over the board but, for example, the case study presented above cost $50,000 (negotiated down from $75,000 in conjunction with the experimentation of producing the draft plan during the session) – and that was over 15 years ago. I am familiar with a recent strategic plan for a non-profit organization – conducted by a national consulting firm specializing in the operations of that specific non-profit industry – and the cost was $75,000 about two years ago. However, take note: a donor sponsored 100% of the cost under the belief that without a strategic plan, the organization was in trouble. So, my suggestion would be to seek donor funding for the strategic planning costs. Also, I would suggest that the organization tout the existence of its strategic plan in its printed material and on its web site, thereby demonstrating that it is proactive and performs in a business-like manner, which can provide a competitive advantage during fundraising.