Start the New Year With a “Strategic Plan” Bang

By Laurence A. Pagnoni, MPA

Legend has it that a young buck of a woodsman challenged his older teammate to a competition to see who could chop down the most trees in one day. When the day arrived, they went to the forest, shook hands, and then went to work. The young man was strong, enthusiastic and worked hard. He kept  chopping, occasionally looking over and laughing to himself that the old man was taking breaks. At the  end of the day, the older woodsman walked over to his young colleague and asked, “So, how did you do?”  The young man proudly replied, “I chopped down 85 trees! How about you?” “Oh, that’s very good, young man. I chopped down 92.” “But how is that possible? I’m stronger and I saw you taking breaks throughout the day.” “Well, young man, every hour I took a 10 minute break, and during that break, I rested and I sharpened my axe!

Strategic Planning is about taking time to sharpen your axe. This past November, the NYC Better Business Bureau’s Education and Research Foundation held a Charity Effectiveness Symposium on Strategic Planning for Mission Impact. The quick assessment? Great event, well facilitated, interesting panelists.

[Paula Gavin, Chief Service Officer in the NYC Office of the Mayor moderated and set the agenda. Panelists were Joyce Dudley, President of Dudley Hamilton Associates, Inc., who spoke on how to plan for planning; Richard Berlin, ED of Harlem RBI on the types and scope of high impact strategic plans; Jennifer Jones-Austin, CEO Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, on Shareholder Engagement; and David Garza, ED of  Henry Street Settlement on Plan implementation and Measuring success.]

Here are the takeaways:

  • Assure that your leadership is committed to the process; have a kickoff event where you frame the work ahead as an exciting opportunity, not a threat. Then, keep the focus on collaboration and agility.
  • Structure a time line for the project. Strategic thinking can be done in a one-day retreat, but writing the plan takes longer (three months on average), unless there has been much preparation before and you have a simple organization.
  • Before you design the plan, do a “Listening Tour” and speak with all your major stakeholders and competitors (yes, competitors!). Tell them what you are thinking and ask for their help refining your understanding on the context. Ask them what they perceive as your agency’s strengths and the things that could do done better. Share the findings.
  • Discern and build from a shared vision among Board, staff and other stakeholders. This will lay the groundwork for their engagement in the process, and will make the strategic plan a living document, and ensure it is implementable, not just an exercise with a bookshelf-filling-report.
  • There’s strategic planning and strategic thinking; strategic thinking needs to be ongoing, executives must continue reflecting and be open to redirecting course. Strategic planning is that big picture process that happens every three or four years.
  • When you’re discussing complex issues, make sure to have differing opinions and even appoint a devil’s advocate if need be.
  • Sometimes the process reveals who will “take the trip with you to the next destination, and who will get off the bus.” The point is to use the process to make sure you’re working with the right people.
  • Sometimes strategic plans are too general and become difficult to implement; other times they become so extensive, they become difficult to complete. So, a balance is needed.
  • The plan moves from ideation, to implementation, to measurement and modification. In other words, in strategic planning, we have to start with the goals, figure out how to implement them, and how we’re going to measure progress, and build-in the flexibility to make adjustments as needed.
  • Employ multiple teams to frame out what it will look like in each program area, and make sure to resource the plan so it can actually be accomplished.

Our panelists’ “best practice nuggets” were:

  • Ask the right questions and measure the results – David Garza
  • There’s no reason to expect change won’t happen. Position that up front and frame the planning process as acquiring a measure of control. Institutionalize the practices of collaboration, measurement, agile leadership and strategic thinking. – Joyce Dudley
  • Think Big – it can be a painful process, but make it ambitious and worth it.  – Richard Berlin
  • Ensure clarity at every stage of the process, and don’t move onto the next stage if someone doesn’t understand. – Jennifer Jones Austin

If you’d like to learn more about what came up that day, or secure information on the LAPA strategic planning process, please email me.

We welcome your comments about this post on the LAPA blog.

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