It’s Not Me, It’s You Wrecking Strategic Planning

Let me tell you a story about a recent strategic planning gig.

In the last hour of a 2-day facilitation, while we were on the final review of the draft strategic plan, a participant who had been contributing positively from the beginning turns to his colleagues and says, “This isn’t a strategic plan.”.

Well crap.

After I addressed the issue, I sat down next to Meg, our analyst who led the research, and we talked about how we always get the same questions. Regardless of client.

Below common questions surrounding strategic planning that almost everyone asks at some point. If you need help with strategic planning, BTW, you can see how we do it HERE.

Alright, let’s go.

Can we trust the research informing strategic planning?

Garbage in, garbage out as the old saying goes.

At one recent Board meeting, a participant kept asking about the statistical validity of the member/nonmember survey we used to inform the strategic planning process. Finally, I said, “Dr. [redacted] statistical validity is a math test not an opinion.”

The point is valid (pun intended) though. You must be able to address the strengths and weaknesses in your data so that people trust its use. Consider the following.

  1. Who was included in the research and how were they selected?
  2. What research tools were used and why?
  3. What is the quality of the data used for the strategic planning analysis?
  4. What questions weren’t asked and why?

You don’t need perfect information, but you need to demonstrate your commitment to a quality research, analysis and reporting process to ensure participants accept the information and use it to inform their decisions.

Why doesn’t this look like my strategic plan at work?

Most people now have gone through a strategic planning process. This experience establishes their frame of reference. Anything that doesn’t look like what they’re familiar with doesn’t count. They can’t help but compare the new plan to the one from work.

To combat this, set expectations on the front end on what is and isn’t included in the plan. Why it may be similar or different from previous plans they’ve done. Outline differences in process or how different strategic planning models look at decisions from a different direction.

As I tell folks, there are all sorts of ways to conduct strategic planning and they all work.

Why does this look different than our association’s old plan?

Personally, I find this the most frustrating. Particularly when you see the high level of crappiness exhibited by many old plans. Seriously, how did some folks make a living at this?

Remember a key point, though. The goal isn’t to write the world’s most awesomest plan document but to help the Board make progress toward the association’s goals.

For example, during a recent bad engagement, (spoiler alert – after 20 years we occasionally don’t have a happy client), the participants struggled so substantially with the stylistic points of our plan that they couldn’t concentrate on the substance. Their frustration was so substantial that the entire document had to be modified.

If a previous style of plan was acceptable and you can fit new goals and strategies into this framework, why not do it? If you are going to change how the plan looks and how the pieces of the plan fit together, you’ll need a clear rationale as to why it benefits the association.

Remember. It’s not about you.

During a another recent planning exercise, we presented a visual framework of strategy. We discovered it was confusing people.  The solution? We wrote a text-based explanation mirroring the visual framework. This accommodated how some people processed information differently.

Prior to planning investigate how “committed” the Board is to the previous plan so you can adjust your own expectations on the form of the next strategic plan.

A corollary to this is when the Board wants to retain a portion of the historical plan because they don’t want to repeat a difficult or time-consuming process rehashing some old argument.

While the historical plan may be terrible, it’s sometimes better to keep legacy language. This may be particularly true when there is no substantive impact on the new goals and strategies.

Isn’t that a “strategy” or “tactic”?

Since virtually everyone has gone through strategic planning at some point, somewhere, they’ve had someone lecture them about the difference between a strategy and tactic.

As one Board member once told me, “I want to make sure we’re focused on strategy, that’s our job, not tactics.” (side bar – she said this right before beginning to micromanage a key point.)

In defense of volunteers, staff and our consulting colleagues, the difference between a strategy and tactic is one of perspective. There are not commonly accepted definitions. They describe a hierarchy and hierarchies, by definition, are open to interpretation.

To address this, try the following.

  1. Orient participants to how you define strategies and tactics, so they understand your frame of reference. While common definitions may not exist, common frameworks can be developed.
  2. Work them through exercises to assess their own perspectives.

Identify what they believe in advance.and make adjustments.  Focus on the outcome and way to the outcome.

How do we talk about goals vs. objectives?

Like strategies and tactics, some people struggle with goals vs. objectives.

Here’s an example I use to explain the difference.

  1. My goal is to lose weight.
  2. My objective is to lose 5 lbs.
  3. My strategy is to drink less.
  4. My tactic is to use a 1.5 oz measure instead of a 2.0 oz measure when I make a Manhattan (world’s perfect business drink).
  5. My metric is 2 ½ pounds lost each month for two months.

See? Easy and practical.

Strategic planning efforts look at thematic goals, not hard numbers because your volunteers don’t have the time or competency to develop specific objectives. You need to clarify to the participants that hard numbers are the purpose of business planning.

We are interested in end points. Step one is to write the draft with goals identified as outcomes. For example, “treating patients” isn’t a goal but saying “patients will be healed” is a goal.

Shouldn’t there be more detail about tactics, so we can make sure things get done?

Years ago, whomever did strategic planning convinced Boards that a strategic plan listed key tactics so that they could monitor progress. Shame on you. For the last 3 decades we’ve been fighting to correct this perception.

The result? Many of us spend too much time fighting Boards attempting to create huge “to do” lists. The result is not “to do” but “do do” if you ask me.

Strategic plans outline thematic agreement on association goals and strategy and their relationship to each other. They don’t define specific tasks.

Following strategic planning, the staff should develop more detailed business plans outlining how the goals and strategies are achieved through the normal planning and budgeting.

Four Key Lessons to Summarize

In closing, here are some thoughts.

  1. Create a transparent, objective and defensible process for informing strategic plan so that people trust the output. Scale it to need and resources.
  2. Understand different perspectives of strategic planning exist and work to identify these perceptions about strategic planning at the front end.
  3. Orient your leadership and staff to your model and its advantages over legacy efforts.
  4. Communicate throughout the process to create and reinforce agreement before you begin the hard work of discussions and consensus.
  5. Pat yourself on the back when it’s all done and, in honor of the person on the Board who was most committed to the past, sip an Old Fashioned.

An Old Fashioned is a delicious cocktail created by combining legacy (meaning traditional) ingredients.

Great recipe HERE.