The short answer? A process for setting goals for an organization to take advantage of the future.
A couple of years ago the Association of Government Accountant on Guam asked me to put together a four-day workshop on how to conduct strategic planning. Here are some useful Powerpoint decks to take you through the process.
The files for each day of the workshop can be found here.
DAY 1: An Introduction to the theory and logic of strategic planning -
The question is, of course, can you do this without a consultant? Even though I am in the business of helping organizations through the planning process I have to confess that you can do a pretty good plan by simply following the steps I outline here. What a facilitator gets you is a better plan more efficiently created. There are lots of "rapids" in the planning process and I know how to navigate them, even make them fun. Most importantly, perhaps, I make sure nothing gets missed, overloooked, compromised too much, left incomplete, unexamined, insuffiently analyzed or unresolved. Make job is to help you make tough decisions.
A Longer Answer to the Question of What is Strategic Planning.
It is not just a document or a process. Planning is a way of managing an organization of focusing its decisons, especially choices about the future. Planning is about making a difference in organizational performance, of creating a better future for everyone involved be they shareholders, stakeholders, employees or clients.
Technically strategic planning is an on-going process that becomes a powerful management tool. As a process it involves the management and staff (and sometimes clients) of a business in a discussion about the kinds of future they envision. It's deciding your own fate. Once set, the plan becomes a template against which every management decision can be tested in terms of whether it advances the organization towards its desired future.
Good plans demand a careful analysis of the critical success factors the organization faces which requires a close look at current strengths and weaknesses as well as future challenges and opportunities all set within a contxt of a forecastable future.
The results of the planning should be more than a report. Of equal need with a written record of the analyses and recommendations is agreement about how the business will be conducted in the future. There has to be a blueprint. Staff will fill in the details, but there has to be a clear sense of what is of highest priority to your firm and how it will shift its operations to meet those priorities. In sum, the plan should be the catalyst, inspiration and direction for future operations.
How to conduct planning?
Strategic planning is a responsibility of a board of directors and/or executive management team. Sometimes to include new perspectives in the planning process, it is common to appoint a committee to complete a draft plan which the board and management team ultimately reviews and approves for implementation.
You need to articulate your firm’s mission, vision and goals for the future. An effective plan must address three crucial questions:
What must we do and achiieve to fulfill our mission and to maintain our integrity?
What do we want to do to secure our market position and advance our standing?
What can we do given realistic limtations on resources and external limitations?
The first question is one of mission, the second vision and the third addresses on-going problems and challenges.
Strategic planning becomes a continual process of raising questions, seeking answers, reflecting upon those answers and making recommendations as to what should be done. In strategic planning parlance, the task is to continually “scan” the future to determine if you are headed in the right direction or whether the efforts or goals need to be modified. Out of such intense inquiry come the options to address the future.
What do I do as a facilitator?
My work is to set the agenda for the questions that need to be answered to determine the best strategy for the firm’s growth. Since there are many ways to achieve growth, I assist in isolating the strategies that are seen as best given your vision.
Having set a strategic course, I assist in developing a plan of prioritized goals and objectives whose accomplishment will lead to the future you envision for the company. In the final stages of this process we create a specific action directives with timelines, budgets and performance measures to assure the plan is implemented.
It is important that we recognize our respective, but independent roles in this process. This is your plan. You will have to develop it and implement it. I am in charge of the process, assuring the right questions are rigorously examined and that the plan you develop is realistic and achievable. I need to make sure all the pieces are in place; you need to make sure that they work.
This is, I assure you, hard and intense work. There are two ways to approach this.
Some clients take the time to develop a complete plan, which usually takes six or seven full day sessions spread out over a three month period. This plan is focused on a 3 to 5 year horizon, yet produces specific goals and action plans phased in over the next 18 to 60 months.
Other clients focus on goals for the just the next 18 months, which can be done in two, two-day sessions. This is when we would take a look at two key issues: market viability and organizational capacity. By the end of this session we will have a clear sense of what needs to be achieved to achieve the vision.
Either approach works, the level and amount of planning you choose depends on the readiness of you and everyone in the firm to focus on the future and the importance of having a clear workplan tied to future budgets. I have worked with some organizations long enough to see them start with the shorter session to set strategic goals, then come back two years later and do a comprehensive strategic plan.
What would this cost?
To be an effective planner requires good preparation and follow-up. To facilitate a productive process I need to understand in some detail the important issues your firm faces. I need to review relevant corporate documents and materials from external, journalistic sources to get a better idea of where the company has come from and where it is headed. You may find it useful for me to conduct interviews with others you believe have keen insight into your operations and future. I’ll also handle the paperwork, writing and editing the plan for your review.
To develop a strategic plan costs $5,000 to $50,000 depending upon the amount of preparation required, the level of involvement of staff and whether you are interested in developing goals for one year or five into the future.
Strategic planning is the most important task the leadership of an organization can undertake. The process should examine every aspect of the firm’s future, investigate the widest range of strategic options and make tough decisions that shape its success. It is hard, but worthwhile, work and I would be honored to join you in leading your firm through the process.
Some Nuances Worth Consideration
I hate RFPs. They're a waste of time and they actually interfere with the critical process of getting to know the clients' needs and custom-fitting processes to meet them. I do, however, reluctantly have no choice but to respond to such requests sometimes. The one included here touches on some important points about the "inner game" of strategic planning and why you might find my services useful.
I wrote in my proposal (which I won!): I am not a corporation and I do nothing off the shelf. Every piece of work I do is done by me and is custom-fit to provide the highest quality to the client. It may sound odd, but I consider every strategic plan I have done as a work of art and I can guarantee you that a plan crafted with me will not look like anyone else’s.
A few preliminary comments about strategic planning:
1. The plan is the product you seek, but it not the most important outcome. A plan is just a reminder of what you set out to do, not unlike an airline itinerary. What is important is the process used to build the plan. That process should cause an organization’s leadership to think about what is really important and the focus their discussions about the future.
2. The planning process is strategic in its own right. Done well it builds members’ trust and confidence in their organization, elevates the skills of its leaders and transforms the way in which everyone makes decisions and invests resources. Organizations with good, soundly constructed plans are simply stronger.
3. Planning is not about planning it is about improving performance. The process is a means to and end and the end is not the plan, but the results it produces. I am obsessed with performance, yours as well as my own. I believe there is always a way to do it better and the real promise of a strategic plan is a mission accomplished, a vision achieved and a chance to do better.
Without a thorough understanding of your organization no-one can specify how they will do this project, except to recite the well known steps of strategic planning found in any textbook.
Whoever you hire, any competent planner will take you through a series of analytic steps that yields goals, objectives and action plans that address the most critical issues facing the association. For your firm pressing down on the cookie-cutter will not work. The process needs to be adapted to meet three organizational dimensions:
1. the systems of communication, discourse and decision-making presently in place in X. If the organization is to be fully engaged, then mechanisms well beyond the Task Force need to be mobilized.
2. the culture of X Planning cannot be separated from what it members value and the style they bring to the way they work together.
3. the personalities of the leaders, especially those involved in creating and implementing the plan.
These factors all produce a unique dynamic and the way the planning process unfolds depends upon my sensitivity to these features of the organization.
Group facilitation is not a textbook process nor is it done well corporately. I’m good at what I do because I pay attention to detail and recognize the subtle nuances of what’s going on in an organization. I’m facilitating a decision-making process and the play and spin of culture, values, style and personalities can make the difference between reaching a solid agreement or not. A critical decision can sometimes be facilitated simply by calling on (or not) someone at just the right time.
This is not just a case of bringing out the quiet ones or throttling those who talk too much. Facilitation for strategic planning means to manage a process built around discussions, some of which may be intense enough to border on argument.
Here’s the secret. Strategic planning is in its purest essence about the exercise of power. Planning means that people are going to make decisions about how resources will be distributed, what priorities will drive decisions, where the organization will grow or contract. These are political debates reached through what is, at heart and even in a business, a legislative process.
Since planning is about power and politics, the planning process as legislative discourse needs to assure that all sides are heard, that everyone has a voice and that out of a cacophony of debate comes a clear decision that strengthens the association.
That’s why I use a process that encourages getting everything out in the open. The plan is worthless unless the process draws out every relevant issue and opinion and takes the time to consider and weigh all its options. I employ what I call the “Thanksgiving morning” technique - everything is out on the table, at some point in the process, all the pieces of the anticipated dinner are spread all, over the place; slowly, I help the group to pull it all together. Then we cook the dinner and enjoy the feast.
That’s also why I require debate to be informed by data. A strategic planning task force in my process makes its decisions by collecting and analyzing data all the way through. Debates are framed around differences of opinion, interpretation or value attached to what we know, not just what we think.
Creating a plan this way is exciting but also risky. Assessing an organization closely requires, at some point, that all the assumptions it is based upon be reviewed. I have been known to ask planning groups straight out to consider the strategic option of termination. Great facilitation ultimately demands superior negotiation and diplomatic skills. My ability to structure an argument, provide balance in discussion, allow for open expression of differences while avoiding conflict are all things that lead to plans that people believe in and commit themselves to achieve.
None of this is part and parcel of text book strategic planning, this kind of facilitation comes from years of experience, a willingness to take on the hard jobs and an awareness of what’s really going on
All this suggests that the critical variables in the choice of a facilitator are confidence and trust. Confidence that the right issues are discussed to a meaningful point of closure and trust that decisions are based on what the participants expect, not some agenda or vision in the facilitator’s minds.
I’m often asked to come in to fix the work of poor consultants… one of the biggest complaints? The consultant had something in his or her mind right from the start; he or she wanted us to do something. I’m not talking about the planning process, I’m talking about the way the business issues were addressed.
From the start I have made it clear to my clients that none of this is any of my business. I’m not a commercial real estate professional, I don’t work for X. Except to the degree I want to provide you a useful service I don’t specifically care what you do or how you do it, only that my process leads to an informed, reasoned, debated decision.
This allows for considerable independence on my part and the ability to provide to the process my most valuable asset: the power of the question. Good planning proceeds because the right questions are asked at the right time. I can safely ask questions that persons more attached to the organization might never see or be reluctant to raise.
While my business is not yours I am not suggesting that I don’t understand the business you conduct. Indeed, the first stages of my planning process require that I gain an intimate understanding of X’s history, culture and operations. I have been fortunate enough over the last fifteen years to learn a great deal about the commercial real estate industry. Having worked with its most prestigious associations, its largest networks and more than 40 of its market-leading firms I have gained a perspective about the issues facing the industry and how its leaders are addressing them. I understand the issues well enough to make sure your discussions are get to the core of problem and point to the best current practices.
In conclusion, strategic planning is about talking, thinking and acting. That’s what I do, I design and deliver a process that invites intelligent people to ask hard questions about their organizations and make even tougher decisions about their future.