What do I Need to Know Before I Start the Planning Process?
The following addresses the concerns of the pre-planning stage. This stage is divided into four phases, each addressing different issues and questions. They are:
- To plan or not to plan
- Pre-requisites for planning
- Level of planning
- Involving an External Consultant
- Once the decision to plan has been made
To Plan or Not to Plan
Planning consumes resources, a precious commodity for all organizations. As a process that eventually defines the direction and activities of the organization, it can be an overwhelming and daunting task. Despite the overwhelming nature of the process, the benefits of planning can far outweigh the hardships.
There are benefits to be gained from the actual planning process, as well as from the final planning document. The very activities that staff and boards conduct as part of the planning process empower them to be more effective in their roles-more informed leaders, managers, and decision makers. In addition, the final planning document becomes a tool that can be used to effectively and efficiently manage the organization.
The time devoted to the planning process varies from organization to organization and depends on the resources available to devote to the process. Whether you decide to devote only a two day retreat to the process or engage in a twelve month process, your organization will begin to realize the benefits from the start. Some of the fundamental benefits to the planning process and the development of the final plan include:
- a framework and a clearly defined direction that guides and supports the governance and management of the organization
- a uniform vision and purpose that is shared among all constituencies
- an increased level of commitment to the organization and its goals
- improved quality of services for clients and a means of measuring the service
- a foundation for fund raising and board development
- the ability to set priorities and to match resources to opportunities
- the ability to deal with risks from the external environment and
- a process to help with crisis management
Prerequisites For Planning
As with any major effort, a planning process has its proper time and place in the organization. There are certain organizational elements that must be in place in order to ensure that the planning process will provide the maximum benefit to the organization. It is important to be candid when assessing the organization’s readiness to engage in the planning process. Even if you get half way through the planning process before you realize that the organization is not ready, stop and remedy the situation before continuing with the process. Unfortunately, many organizations plan when the organization is not ready. They always have an unsatisfactory planning process and subsequent results. Make sure the following elements are addressed before making the commitment to plan:
- a commitment of active and involved leadership, with continuous leadership engaged throughout the planning process
- a resolution of major crises that may interfere with the long range thinking during, commitment to, and participation in the planning process (i.e., insufficient funds for the next payroll, the organization is not operating legally, etc.)
- a board and staff that are not embroiled in extreme, destructive conflict
- a board and staff who understand the purpose of planning and what it can and cannot accomplish, as well as consensus about expectations
- a commitment of resources to adequately assess current programs and the ability to meet current and future client needs and
- a willingness to question the status quo and to look at new approaches to performing and evaluating the “business” of the organization.
Level of Planning
As with any other organizational effort, you can do a little planning or a lot of planning. “Enough planning” is when your organization’s leadership understands and has consensus about a clear organizational direction.
It is highly important to examine what needs you are attempting to address from the planning process and the resources available to engage in the process. It is safe to assume that an organization can expect more benefits from a more informed, more resource intensive process.
The key resources required for planning are staff time, board time, and dollars (i.e., market research, consultants, etc.). Specific examples of time resources consumed by the planning process might include time spent:
- collecting and analyzing environmental information
- engaging key stakeholders
- gathering historical financial information, projecting future budgets, and cash flow projections and
- analyzing options and consequences for potential organizational and program strategies.
The amount of resources, time, and money spent on planning should reflect the complexity of the issues you are addressing and the availability of information and resources. The level of planning and resource requirements will vary for every organization.
Involving an External Coach
For an organization with little or no experience in planning, an external coach, or consultant can enhance the planning process by providing the following services:
- Facilitating of retreats, meetings and the planning process as a whole: The use of a consultant to serve as the “conversation traffic cop” is one method of ensuring that good ideas do not get lost in the emotion of the process or personality of the participants. A consultant can work with an organization to minimize planning barriers that impact effectiveness, using his or her experience as a source of tried and true processes.
- Training in planning information and processes: It is critical for everyone involved in the planning process to be speaking the same language and using the same planning tools. External consultants can provide that conduit of information flow and education.
- Providing an objective and different perspective in the process: As an outsider to the organization, the consultant can ask questions and challenge existing traditions, assumptions, and routines more objectively than staff and board members. Often planners do not realize that they are using jargon or have made certain assumptions about their constituency. Having an outside consultant participate in the planning process helps ensure that organizations stay true to one of the prerequisites of engaging in the planning process, the willingness to question the status quo.
- The process expert role: The consultant who has facilitated and conducted many strategic planning processes can provide significant information and advice on tools and processes that can best accomplish your process and content goals.
Once the Decision to Plan Has Been Made
The planning process is like any other process, it needs to be managed. People have many expectations when they hear the word planning. It is important to make sure that everyone is operating from the same set of expectations and knowledge base. Organizations often train keyboard and staff members in process and planning language before embarking on the planning process.
It is also important to identify the potential information needs of the process. Key decisions will be made during planning. In order for these decisions to be high quality, decision analysts and decision makers need to have appropriate financial, program, and client information.
Another tool used in the management of the planning process is a work plan, or a plan to plan. It is an outline of the steps and activities that will take place during the planning process. The plan specifies the tasks, outcomes, resources to be expended (time and financial), and the person(s) responsible in each of the phases in the process.
The following items summarize the steps necessary to prepare for the planning process:
- Planning should be an inclusive process. Obtain a formal commitment to conduct planning, including education of board and staff, if necessary
- Select a strategic planning committee of no more than five to seven people, a combination of visionaries and “actionaries,” or a planning liaison to spearhead the process
- Consider the adequate level of resources (dollars and time) required to conduct an appropriate planning process.
- Develop a workplan or a plan to plan that outlines who is responsible for each outcome and time frames
Selecting the Team
I have found that the strategic planning team is better equipped to do the company a good service as long as the team is diverse, knowledgeable about the company, and that each member is passionate for the organization’s success. Oddly enough, this does not always mean that only the founders or the C-Level executives are the best choices to round out the team.
When you choose the members of the strategic planning committee choose those individuals that have a good perspective of their area of focus. The top brass don’t always know what goes on in the trenches, and may not be able to provide the best viewpoint of how things operate in the company and what needs to be improved upon.
Look for individuals who:
- Are passionate about what they do
- Have a vested interest in the success of the company
- Provide a broad point of view of what works and what doesn’t
- Can exercise patience and can get things moving when the process seems to drag
- Are Leaders who can rally the rest of the organization to buy in to the concept of change
- Understand the advantages of strategy
- Are willing to assess the organization even if it means that weaknesses are uncovered
- Are flexible and willing to make changes when necessary
- Are not “yes” people, but leaders who can stand up and be a compelling voice
- Have the power to deploy the proper resources to bring the plan to fruition
Planning Should be an Inclusive Process
A planning process should be designed to include all board, staff, and other individuals invested in the success of your organization. An inclusive process:
- helps to build both internal and external enthusiasm and commitment to the organization and its strategies. Individuals take on ownership of the goals and efforts to achieve the stated outcomes
- ensures that your informational data base reflects the needs and perceptions of internal individuals and external constituents
- incorporates a level of objectivity into the process. “Outsiders” can identify jargon or ask critical questions around which “insiders” might make assumptions
- develops foundations for future working relationships
- develops uniformity of purpose among all stakeholders
- establishes a continual information exchange among staff, management, customers, and other key stakeholders.
Who Should the Planning Process Include?
Ideally, all key stakeholders should be involved in the planning process at some level. Stakeholders are individuals that are invested in the success or failure of your organization’s mission. Key stakeholders include those persons who can either significantly help or hinder the implementation of your plan.
Key stakeholders may include individuals or groups who you do not traditionally think of including, but are able to contribute valuable perspectives. Examples of key stakeholders may include:
- Board of Directors: The role of the full board is one of governance and oversight. As the entity responsible for governing the organization, its focus should remain on the ultimate and overreaching goals and strategies necessary to achieve organizational success. Therefore, the full board should be involved in processing environmental information and the approval of the vision, values and priorities. As the governing body, it should formally vote on adopting the plan as the management framework around which the organization will develop its operating plan(s).
- Staff: Staff members are a critical ingredient to successful planning – they are the link between the visions and the every day activities of an organization. In an inclusive process, the philosophy is to give staff input and, when appropriate, authority when determining the means of the organization. These individuals have the experience and knowledge around critical success factors that should not be ignored. When staff members are not an integral part of the planning discussions, they need to be informed of the decisions that have been made. Involving staff will:
- ensure the realism of the plan
- encourage all levels of the organization to take ownership of organizational vision and goals
- involve the organization’s future leadership in the development of its identity and vision
- unite individual visions into a single collective vision for the organization.
- You should include staff members that are both current (part and full time, salaried, and unpaid) and previous employees.
- Clients: In a planning process, it is critical to ask and answer, “How well are we meeting the needs of our customers/clients or members?” Directly involving these constituents (both current and previous clients) in the planning process is one of the best methods for assessing organizational performance and receiving guidance for future client needs and program focus.
- Other External Stakeholders: In order for a planning process to be strategic it must address external issues and their potential impact on the organization. Including external stakeholders in the process is one fundamental way of ensuring that these issues will be incorporated into discussions and considered in the organization’s future. External stakeholders can educate staff and the board on the perception of the organization in the community, as well as identify areas where services are being duplicated. Involving external key stakeholders in the planning process can establish a solid rapport on which you can develop powerful business relationships that can last long into the future. External key stakeholders include: financial advisors (existing and potential), community leaders, potential collaborators, other agencies in parallel or related fields, volunteers, etc.
Source: The Business Game Plan, by Brian Hazelgren