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Strategic Planning Unplugged: Setting the Stage for Success!

By: Trevor Mitchell | Jun, 7 2024
Facilitation Methods & Strategic Planning

Photo Credit: pexels.com

Strategic planning is a common practice that organizations and companies use to outline the future direction to guide them over a specific time. At some point, everyone has gone through a strategic planning process, whether in your organization of employment or one you serve on the board for. No matter why you've been through a strategic planning process, it most likely left a lasting memory on you. Over the years, I've observed people's reactions when mentioning the topic of strategic planning. These reactions range from excitement to dread. Most people cite the reason being the process or Facilitator to being the reason why. Additionally, I hear the frustration that nothing ever happens with the drafted plan, resulting in it not being a good use of their time. While these are valid responses and reactions, they can prevented with adequate preparation before the strategy session. 
The CEO, or anyone planning a strategic planning session, is critical in preparing everyone and setting up the process for success. The following are some recommendations on what should be a part of your preparation.

  • Mindset – No matter someone's previous experience with strategic planning, getting everyone in the right mindset for this strategic planning session is essential. 
    • Board members – As with anything with the board, it's vital to help them understand the process they will go through, the outcomes we're looking for, and how you intend for them to engage. This group of individuals will most likely have the broadest background of experiences with strategic planning, and this is the opportunity to help them level-set for this session. You will help them to understand that what they experienced in other sessions may not be the same as what they will experience in this session and to be open to the process. The amount of time is going to be mentally draining and long. Most humans struggle with wanting to come up with solutions, and this challenges them as they are only setting the direction. Helping them to see the bigger picture and how this strategy fits into that is critical to the overall success.
    • Facilitator – It's always recommended to bring in an external facilitator who can guide the group through the session and prompt them to achieve the desired outcome. Their ability to focus on the process while the group focuses on the content is ideal for creating a solid strategy. While having an internal person lead the session is acceptable, they tend to struggle with focusing on the facilitation while also wanting to insert their expertise into the session. Having everyone contribute fully is essential, so hiring someone externally to facilitate the session is recommended. It's also crucial for the Facilitator to understand the organization and the individuals in the room. The CEO can provide background on particular pain points or pet projects of individuals participating. They can help to provide context on how the group tends to engage with each other. For instance, this group likes to talk or is initially reserved. Do they tend to stay in a higher-level strategic mindset, or do they tend to get into the operational weeds of everything? These insights help the Facilitator to prepare for the group before the session. If possible, it's also helpful for the Facilitator to meet with a few of them to get an insight into some of them and start to develop those connections before the strategy session. These individuals can also be champions of the process on sight to support the entire process. 
    • Other participants – Depending on the group, other participants may determined to be included in the session besides the board and the CEO. Typically, the group might consist of staff, committee leads, former board members, and others who provide a specific insight or experience that isn't reflected within the group defined. No matter their reason for being there, you want to set the exact expectations for them as you would the board members. These individuals often defer to the board first in discussion, but in reality, we want everyone to be active, equal participants. Working to help them understand that and draw out their insights and thoughts is why they are there. 
  • Materials to review – Strategic planning sessions are usually limited, so there isn't always enough time to cover everything in person. We have to rely on some pre-planning work for individuals to get them thinking. As we are typically working with volunteers, we have to balance the volume of what we give them with the time they will have to spend reviewing them. We also know they probably won't review them until closer to the session, if not on the way. It is generally recommended to provide them with the current strategic plan and any recent survey/research data to review and reference. 
  • Room set up and flow – We don't spend enough time thinking about how the room is arranged and the flow for the day. While the Facilitator will generally have requests, it's vital to incorporate the organization's culture into all of this. Sometimes, you want to do assigned seating to set certain people together or have others split apart. For instance, you may wish to sit the Board Treasurer and CFO together or to have an equal distribution of board, staff, and other participants at each table. You may consider splitting up participants known to talk more when around the room to minimize disruptions. All of these can influence the outcome of the entire session. 

Utilzing these tools, the CEO can ensure proper preparation before the strategy planning session that will engage and maximize participation. The goal is to create a future for your organization. Pre-planning is critical to the success of the process and ensures you are setting everyone up for success. 

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