This is the third part of a series of posts on the mistakes organizations make in strategic planning. The first reviewed how plans lacking buy in from key stakeholders usually end up gathering dust on the shelf as well as how to avoid that outcome. The second explored how some planning processes do not ground themselves in real data, relying instead on anecdotes. I also discussed how visioning can sometimes go too far, creating plans that lack connection to the organization’s actual capacity. In this third post, I will discuss two additional mistakes that get in the way of an organization having a successful planning process.
Getting overly complicated can show up a few different ways. Sometimes it’s the process itself. Organizations trip themselves us when they try to tackle too many strategic issues through one planning process. The process gets bogged down. People forget why they started the process in the first place. At the end of an overly complicated process, people are often so tired that they have little energy to implement the wonderful plan they have just created. Keep your focus on 2-3 major strategic issues and keep the process moving for success.
The plan itself can also be overly complicated. A strategic plan that ends up too long and too detailed often tries to nail down all the actions steps in advance. The big ideas get lost in the pages and pages of graphs and Gantt charts. Keep the strategic plan itself simple – a few pages with 3-5 big goals that will orient the work of the organization. The details should go in an implementation plan, focusing on the first year’s work plan.
Failure to operationalize
Failing to operationalize the plan is one of the most frequently mentioned challenges by consultants working with organizations on strategic planning. When your strategic plan is not connected to your regular management practices, you set yourself up for failure. Staff and volunteer work plans need to be driven by the large strategic goals with details on what action steps will move the organization closer to those goals. I worked at one organization at which a lot of effort was expended to connect volunteer groups actions to the strategic plan. Yet the strategic plan had no impact on staff work plans. This practice missed a key element to increase the likelihood of the plan’s success.
Budgeting is a second key area for operationalizing the plan. Remembering that a budget is nothing more than a plan in numbers, when the budget does not support the strategic goals then progress is unlikely. Are new initiatives being adequately supported with investment?
Be sure to create a process for monitoring progress and making tweaks to the plan as needed. Staff and volunteers should be reviewing it regularly, acknowledging and celebrating where progress has been made and adjusting as appropriate.
Keep it simple
So keep it simple – both in your planning process and in writing the plan itself. Think about how you will operationalize the plan and integrate it into the your regular management practices at the beginning of the process.
Want to talk about how you might apply this at your organization? Book a coaching session.
The primary mistake that organizations make in strategic planning is failing to fully engage their constituents to get buy in to the plan. “Getting buy in” too often takes on the meaning of, “I have told you what I want and what we will be doing” and then I assume because I have ‘communicated’ that to you, you are by definition ‘bought in.’ I write more extensively about this mistake in this blog post.
Other mistakes include a plan that is based on anecdotes rather than data as well as a plan that is not truly grounded in reality.
Anecdotes rather than data
How are you integrating reliable data into your process? When you are doing your scan of the external environment, are you just relying on the observations of those in the room at the planning retreat, or are you doing some searching for research on current trends in your field?
Think about asking 1-2 people working on your strategic plan to gather reports and research, summarize it and share it with the larger group. What data do you already have available about your organization? And how are you using it to inform your thinking? What data is missing? How can you gather it? Your up front data gathering with constituents that could include interviews, focus groups and/or surveys will also give you a wider and more grounded view. Be aware of not letting your thinking be swayed by the most recent member/constituent conversation you have had.
Pie in Sky Planning
Organizations usually look for ways to stretch themselves and set ambitious goals during a strategic planning process. But when it is going too far? When your strategic planning group gets caught up in grand visions, the plan can have little connection to reality. Have you considered what it will take to get from here to your vision? Does the plan just add new things? Have you made decisions about what you are going to stop? When your goals are so lofty or such a departure from what you are currently doing, the plan is likely to end up just talk.
Ground your thinking in research and data, create stretch goals that are also realistic to achieve. These leading practices will help ensure that your plan will be put into action rather than just sitting on the shelf.
Thinking of engaging in a strategic planning process with your organization and want to learn more? Get in touch with me for a complementary coaching session.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.