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The 5 Crucial Steps to Sound Strategic Planning

By: Aaron Wolowiec | Mar, 4 2022

group having a business meeting

Photo courtesy of Pexels/Alena Darmel

When it comes to strategic planning, there are essentially two types of people in this world: those who love its structure and outcomes, and those for whom it sends shivers down their spine. As a Certified Technology of Participation (ToP) Facilitator and Mentor Trainer, I’d be the former.

Now I know what you must be thinking: Is strategic planning still relevant in today’s business environment? Hasn’t the pandemic flipped the script in terms of both short- and long-term planning? Is the effort and investment still worth it? Won’t our plan be outdated the minute we publish it?

Personally, I think every organization needs a roadmap. We’re all familiar with those organizations (yours might even be one of them!) who consistently chase after the next shiny object only to find themselves with an overwhelming collection of programs, products, and services they have trouble maintaining, innovating, and sunsetting, as needed.

In times of certainty, a strategic plan serves as a North Star and occasional reminder of intended outcomes and success measures. In times of uncertainty and change, it helps remind us of who we’ve set out to be, the paths available to us, and context for when course corrections are needed.

No matter your viewpoints on strategic planning, one thing’s for certain: the plan that sits on the shelf and is never referenced is not doing anyone any good. So if you’re going to create a plan that’s worth anything at all, at least consider the following strategic planning primer strongly rooted in the ToP values of profound respect and inclusive participation.

Step 1: Environmental Scan 

Every strategic planning process should begin with an environmental scan. I often do this via member survey broken up into three distinct time segments: past, present, and future. Asking a couple of questions in each section (at least one focused on strengths and one focused on weaknesses/opportunities), we can quickly and easily surface key organizational milestones.

Data is then reviewed and insights aggregated into a top-level summary for validation by organization leadership. The themes and trends outlined in this summary are used in concert with a discussion of the organization’s mission and values to ground the group’s planning efforts. 

All of this pre-work is important because the organization isn’t starting from scratch. Often, organizations simply wish to build upon their past successes while identifying a handful of new initiatives. But even if the intention is to chart a brand new course, leaders must respect and honor they’re history so they’re not doomed to repeat it.

Step 2: Practical Vision

In this step, stakeholders work to identify the current vision of the organization. They explore what they hope to see in place in the next three to five years (or whatever duration of time they deem to be most appropriate) because of their efforts. The vision becomes the foundation upon which the rest of the strategic planning process builds.

Here, we’re in search of a vision that’s positive, hopeful, and practical. This is not just blue sky visioning where you toss out any idea. Rather, these are proposed accomplishments that members, leaders, and staff desire to see in place. And although the vision should remain fairly fixed over a pre-determined period of time, this process/tool is flexible enough to make periodic tweaks and changes, as needed.

Step 3: Underlying Contradictions

An important component of strategic planning, and one often overlooked, is understanding what barriers (both real and perceived) may get in the way of achieving your stated vision. This step in the process is a unique approach that explores the possible self-imposed blocks and root causes of those blocks to fully prepare to mitigate those moving forward.

Here, we are looking for the patterns, attitudes, structures, and blocks that we encounter in our day-to-day work. We’re looking for what’s there, not what’s missing. It’s like working in your garden, watering the plants, and the water running from the hose suddenly stops. You don’t just stare at the hose and shout, “There’s no water” (signaling a lack of water). You turn to check if there is a kink in the hose, if someone stepped on it, or if someone turned off the water. In this exercise, we’re looking for the kinks or blocks rather than announcing what’s not there. 

Step 4: Strategic Directions

In this step, stakeholders identify the practical actions that will deal with the identified contradictions and move the organization toward its vision. Groups identify a range of creative and strategic actions that will inform focused strategies. With the vision in mind, and being prepared to mitigate what might prevent success, three to four strategies (or pillars) are identified that will carry the organization forward.

Step 5: Focused Implementation

Finally, the process concludes by identifying what measurable actions must be taken over the next year that will implement the strategic directions. In this workshop, often the staff and other key stakeholders will identify the specific, measurable milestones (e.g., projects, events) that will implement the strategic directions. 

The group begins by exploring the current reality, first-year accomplishments, and success indicators for each strategic direction. First-year accomplishments are then calendared and assignments created by quarter. And finally, implementation steps are detailed for the first 90 days. Every 90 days thereafter, quarterly plans are reviewed, course corrections noted, and new implementation steps drafted.

If you or your team is engaged with strategic planning (or has a question about one or more of these steps), please share with us your tips, tricks, and recommendations using the comments below or by emailing us at [email protected].

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