Tips for Creating a Dialogue in the Strategic Planning Process

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We know that strategic planning is a crucial process for all organizations. Notice the emphasis is placed on the process as opposed to the plan. Not to minimize the plan: it’s definitely vital to organizations. However, sometimes the process of creating the plan is just as important. It’s your opportunity to have rich conversation with stakeholders who are personally and professionally invested in the mission and share ideas about envisioning better outcomes for clients. Listed below are five quick ideas that are intended as suggestions to be included along with the activities that you already conduct. These ideas will help ensure that the process of strategic planning is also…well, strategic.

  1. Keep clients in mind
    Remind all participants of the purpose of strategic planning. It’s to improve the services for the clients that you serve. I know that the strategic plan is a high-level look at making the organization sustainable, but in the end, it goes back to serving children and families. Remind your stakeholders by starting the session with a few client success stories. While numbers and outcomes are always important, putting actual stories to those numbers can set the mood and encourage the focus of the planning process to center around consumers. While COA expects an organization to develop a strategic plan every 4 years, clients expect that the organization will continue to be there for them.
  2. Don’t be afraid to adapt
    Talk about adaptation. The only way an organization can adapt is by asking themselves questions that challenge them to change. Sometimes the best question to ask is “What would happen if we, as an organization, do not make any changes over the next 4 years?” Hopefully this fosters the development of goals and objectives that actually are indicative of change as opposed to goals of maintenance (maintenance goals are not the types of goals strategic plans should be including). We know that our communities are constantly changing, so how can your organization remain relevant if it doesn’t change also?
  3. Stay relevant
    Lead a discussion around the relevance of the organization. Let’s take a quick look at businesses that failed to remain relevant. Kodak, Blockbuster Video and Borders, to name a few – see, 10 Businesses That Failed to Adapt. Their businesses failed because they were no longer relevant to the communities that they served (consumers at-large who rely on electronic and digital media). Now let’s take those lessons and apply them to human service organizations: how is your organization maintaining relevancy? Are you relying on treatment models that don’t quite fit the population you serve? Is the evidence to support your work based on research that was conducted 15+ years ago? Are you looking at national trends and anticipating how those trends may impact your state? These are all questions to consider when determining how to improve your work.

“How is your organization maintaining relevancy? Are you relying on treatment models that don’t quite fit the population you serve? Is the evidence to support your work based on research that was conducted 15+ years ago? Are you looking at national trends and anticipating how those trends may impact your state?”

  1. Align with your mission
    While talking about relevancy and change, you will want to be sure that your mission is still an accurate reflection of the services you provide currently and in the future. Facilitate a discussion during the strategic planning process that looks at each program and assesses its alignment to the mission. If there is a program that seems to fall outside of the scope of the mission, pose the question: “Why are we doing this?” While some organizations are providing services because the reimbursement rates help to support the organization, remember that the priority is the clients. Can another organization provide the service better because it is more aligned with their mission? Knowing that it is never easy to close a program that can be better operated by another group; remember that freeing up resources to focus on what you do well will result in even better outcomes. If you are considering a program that falls outside the mission or areas of expertise, ask the leadership of the organization: “Are we willing to invest the resources to be able to provide highest level of service in this area?”
  2. Discuss your strengths and seek out challenges
    Talk about what your organization does well and seek out challenges to make it even better. This helps prevent complacency and also allows your group to feel good about the strengths that the organization possesses. Sometimes during strategic planning, discussion can hover in areas of weakness and vulnerability; even the above points are somewhat focused around areas that need improvement. Difficult conversations are necessary to appropriately plan for an organization’s future, but I’m confident that there have been a lot of successes. Otherwise, you probably wouldn’t be planning the next 4 years of operation. If you’re ever unsure, ask those that you serve and the direct staff that work with them. They will be able to provide you an endless list of accomplishments.

There are lots of great resources out there to guide you in your strategic planning process. A resource I used as guidance for this post is Ralph Brody and Murali Nair’s book, Effectively Managing and Leading Human Service Organizations. Also, be sure to check out COA’s Training Calendar to access a list of upcoming trainings, including a webinar focused on strategic planning and how it relates to COA Standards. Finally, use your strategic plan as tool for risk prevention and visit the Nonprofit Risk Management Center for a breadth of risk management resources.

Over to you

Do you have any advice for organizations undergoing the strategic planning process? Can you think of any specific elements to your strategic planning process that were crucial to its success? Please let me know in the comments below!