Is strategic planning worth the effort? Frequently organizations are concerned whether it will be time well spent, whether the plan that gets created will get implemented. Here are two stories of the impact strategic planning had on two small organizations that prioritized getting intentional about their future.
Keeping Growth & Momentum Going
A small local disability focused service organization spent the last several years strengthening its board, its financial footing and documenting processes for its signature events. After this strengthening process, the leadership decided it was in a good position to be more deliberate about deciding its future direction.
After interviewing key stakeholders and conducting focus groups of board members, I shifted what was planned as a full day retreat to two online sessions. The goal of the sessions was to define the organization's key goals for the next 3-5 years. During the online sessions, the board
The organization now has a new strategic plan with clear support from the organization's leadership. The process helped the group celebrate the strides they had taken over the past several years. They were able to acknowledge their success and build on that positive momentum to move forward with focus and direction.
A lesson in letting go
A small local environmental organization had been volunteer-led for most of its 30 years. In the past five years, it had hired its first executive director and added several part-time staff. The organization had not successfully undergone strategic planning and its vision was primarily directed by its founding board members. The organization had a very large board that was still very involved in day-to-day operations.
I interviewed and conducted focus groups with key board members. Board members conducted interviews with external stakeholders. I facilitated two online sessions to define the organization's key goals for the next 3-5 years. During the online sessions, the board
Through these sessions the board and staff were able to recognize ways in which how they were operating was getting in their own way and make plans to adjust. They had tough conversations about what the role of the board and the staff needed to be going forward and how to make working together a more positive experience.
The organization now has a new strategic plan with clear delineation of roles and responsibilities as well as action items and key performance indicators. This is the organization's first strategic plan that was developed as a shared vision.
What does all this growth mean for us going forward?
Challenge: An education related organization had accomplished all the key goals in their current strategic plan. Over this period, the organization experienced substantial growth both in the number of clients it was serving as well as the scope of the services they were providing the field. With the increased staff strength, the board had become accustomed to relying on staff for direction and strategic thinking. The organization needed to assess the implications of this growth, ensure that there was alignment of staff and board in order to set direction and clear goals for the next 3-5 years.
Approach: After interviews with each of the board members, and external stakeholder interviews as well as focus groups with staff, I facilitated a one-day retreat with the board and staff leadership. The retreat focused on:
• conducting an environmental scan to identify key trends impacting the organization’s work,
• reviewing the themes from the interviews and focus groups and discuss their implications
• envisioning the organization’s future impact on the field,
• resulting in identifying two to three key strategic goals for the organization.
Results: The organization now has a new strategic plan with clear support from both the board and staff leadership. The process helped the board step into its strategic role. Board meetings now have time dedicated to focusing on strategic questions. Staff leadership was also able to recognize how some of their actions encouraged the board to rely on them. Thus they are now equipped to make different choices moving forward. They can be clearer about what is staff work and what is the board’s responsibility.
Are our board and staff focused on the right things?
Challenge: A local land trust organization had a regular good practice of conducting a board self-assessment each year. Over the past couple years, a few indicators created some concern. The group decided it would benefit from outside facilitation for its annual board staff retreat to dive into the issues raised in the self-assessment, including roles and responsibilities between board and staff.
Approach: In addition to the board self-assessment results, I conducted a survey of staff and board. My goal was to learn about the board’s current concerns and to understand the staff’s perspective on the organization’s current state. During the retreat, after a brief presentation on nonprofit life cycles, the group considered where their organization stood in its development. I then shared the themes from the survey and had the group discuss the implications.
Board and staff learned that they had more in common than they thought on their perspectives of what the organization needed to improve in terms of operations. It also became clear that the board was eager to stay at the governance level and focus on longer-term strategic issues. Through small group work, the groups considered its current initiatives and areas for future development and sketched out next steps. The group then gave each small group feedback.
Results: Through the retreat, the board and staff were able to open up conversations focused on roles and responsibilities that they had had some trepidation about addressing. The conversations revealed more agreement than individuals had expected. The group identified areas for growth and left with increased clarity on roles, goals and next steps.
I was at a three-day training last week for the Standards of Excellence: An Ethics and Accountability Code for Nonprofit Sector. One of our trainers, Justin Pollock of Orgforward helped us dig into both the why and the how of each of the major areas of the code.
He posed two provocative questions set up our conversations – When XYZ is going well in the organization, what does that make possible for the people? And for people to achieve these results, what are the favorable conditions that need to be in place?
Getting caught up in the "thing"
Too often organizations and the consultants that support them get too caught up in doing the “thing” – whether that is strategic planning, clarifying the mission and vision or program evaluation – without stepping back and thinking what they are hoping to get from this work – or what they are hoping will be different.
By asking “when strategy and mission is going well in the organization, what does that make possible for the people? What does it enable staff, board and volunteers to be able to do better? What are the benefits?” first, you get at the hopes, aspirations and motivations for the strategy or mission work. And further by asking, “what do they need to know, have access to, be able to do and believe?” – in other words – identifying the favorable conditions for making progress in this area.
Putting it into action
What does this look like in practice? With strategic planning for example – what will be different when you engage in strategic planning? Too often people complain about an involved process that just resulted in a plan that sat on a shelf. When does strategic planning have real benefits for the organization? This could be in terms of the process itself – having time and space to dig into why the organization does what it does. This could uncover misalignment between stakeholders – whether board, staff, clients – on expectations. By uncovering these, they can then be worked through to bring people closer together in their understanding of the organization’s goals. When done well, the process helps the organization focus its resources, letting go of activity that is no longer serving the mission. It can serve to enable the organization to work on reducing the “friction” and “static” within the organization.
What are the favorable conditions to make these positive results possible? Favorable conditions would include having an inclusive and participatory process. If people feel like they are simply being told what the goals and priorities are by a few people within the organization, they may or may not be ‘bought in’ to the desired outcomes. Even if they are included in the process from the outset unless they feel like they can speak openly and honestly, they will just be going through the motions. A second condition that supports success is to have a clear pathway to translate large organizational level goals into team work plans and individual goals for the year. This will facilitate action.
Uncovering the why and the how
So the next time you launch into a large project, takes some time to consider these two questions – when we are successful with our project, what will it make possible for people in the organization? – to get clear on the “why” behind your work. Then consider “what are the conditions required to make our work go well?” – to think about the “how” of your project and set yourself up for success.
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Every organization development and strategic consulting project begins with a discovery stage. A time to research and hear from stakeholders and constituents. A time to hear stories about the past, assessments of the present and aspirations for the future. Depending on the project the exact focus will differ.
How effectively is the group working together?
Organization development projects focus on how people are working with each other – what is going well and what are the rubs that are getting in the way of the group being effective in achieving its purpose. The consultant engages in an action research project which could involve observation, interviewing key stakeholders, running focus groups and surveying wider audiences.
Capturing the current state
In the case of strategic planning, the consultant also digs into past work – past strategic plans, other research, basic organizational documents such as by laws, financials, organizational charts, board minutes, work plans, etc. The goal is to begin to get a sense of the current state of the organization. With this grounding in what the organization has documented, the consultant will then dive into talking with stakeholders – through interviews, focus groups and surveys.
Sifting for Nuggets
The next step is to synthesize all this data. This step can be overwhelming when you are sifting through piles of interview and focus group notes to look for the significant nuggets. But once it comes together in the form of themes the gold starts to shine through.
Gift of Listening
One of the real powerful aspects of all this work comes through the interactions with the people you interview, listen to in a focus group, ask for feedback in a survey. Too rarely in organizational life are people asked to reflect on and talk about their experience within the organization. Each interview is an opportunity to be a gift of true listening.
The sigh of recognition
Sharing the synthesis of the research is the point of truth. When you succeed in accurately capturing what you heard and your highlights resonate with the people whom you gathered it from – you can often hear an audible sigh of relief and recognition. “You really heard us,” is music to my ears. The act of being truly heard and seen empowers people to stand in their lived experience and then take action. This could be to face a difficult challenge or have a difficult conversation. This could be to dream bigger for their organization and start envisioning how to take action towards it.
Conversely, when you share the themes with the group and they do not want to hear some of the feedback, lots of different reactions can happen. Denial and dismissing the information. Questions and challenges about your methodology. Getting stuck on one point and spending lots of time arguing about it. Sometimes a project then gets shut down. This is unfortunate for a couple reasons. The organization expended resources gathering information with which they are not ready or willing to deal. More importantly gathering data often raises the expectations of those involved in the input process. They may then be more discouraged after the process than they were before if they see no action taking place.
The Power of Data Gathering
Either way – whether the information prompts the relaxation that comes with – “oh I am not alone – lots of other people think like I do but we just have not been discussing it,” or “no way, you are wrong – that is not how our team functions…” Something powerful happens. The group will not be the same afterwards. Be ready for change when you ask for input.
Need support with the strategic questions your organization is facing? Inquire about a coaching call.
A small organization called for strategic planning help. They had once been staffed but had gone through a series of crises. If there were a nonprofit soap opera, they could have starred. Their long time executive director and founder died. The board, used to the founder taking care of everything, was disengaged. They were hit by a lawsuit. The caretaker for one of the properties they owned was dealing drugs from the property.
Cleaning up the mess
A motivated board chair stepped into clean up the mess. She made great strides.
They were just emerging from these series of events and getting themselves back on their feet, when she called to engage in consulting.
We were able to design a process that was useful for the board and the organization. Through conversations with internal and external stakeholders, we were able to get a clear picture of the organization's strengths, perceptions of it in the community and the level of commitment of the board. I designed and facilitated a one-day retreat for the board where they were able to make some important short-term strategic decisions.
When the time is right
They were not ready, however, for engaging in strategic planning. They were out of utter crisis mode but not completely. The organization’s future was still tenuous and the board’s commitment to do what it would take to turn it around was not clear. Thus trying to engage in a longer-range visioning process just was not called for.
Our brains in crisis
When we are faced with a threat or a crisis, our vision and thinking narrows. Our brain does this to help us focus on the most immediate challenge. The threat does not need to be a saber tooth tiger. Our brain reacts to social threats in the same way as a physical threat. Thus a threatened brain is literally fixated on the short-term.
When is the time right?
Timing is important for strategic planning. The organization needs to be stable enough to be able to think longer term creatively. Does the organization have enough capacity to dedicate the time and energy needed to engage in strategic planning? Is the leadership committed to supporting changes that emerge from new and creative thinking about the organization’s future? Or will be the process be just going through the motions?
Strategic planning is a powerful process to shape the future path of your organization. Thinking about timing when you are going to launch a process is an important factor to consider.
Need support with the strategic questions your organization is facing? Inquire about a coaching call.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.