3 Things Strategic Planning Should Accomplish (Besides the Plan)

“It’s time for strategic planning again.”

If you’re anything like the Board members at a nonprofit where I serve as an officer, you can probably relate to the collective sighs this announcement elicited. I found this reaction amusing…and a little troubling. Because I do value-added strategic planning for my clients, I know it isn’t just a necessary evil. Strategic planning is truly one of the most exciting and valuable opportunities you and your organization can undertake.

That’s because it’s never just about producing a plan. At CiTTA Partnership, we often tell clients, the steps you take along that journey are just as important. Let’s talk process.

Step One: Creating Internal Alignment and Cultural Shifts

At its core, your strategy is about how to best apply your limited resources to the most effective and impactful priorities. You’ve got difficult decisions to make to drive your organization – and in this process, your vision, mission, and values will be revisited, clarified, and refined. It’s the perfect opportunity to get all your key stakeholders on the same page.

We facilitate a highly inclusive and participatory process that ensures all voices are heard (not just the loudest ones!). It’s a rare opportunity for Board members, leadership, and staff to work together in the same room, using hands-on exercises, facilitated conversations, large-group, and small-group discussions. To be sure, there are often differing perspectives between Board members and leadership or staff members. It is an intense process by design. But the tools we use lead to enhanced mutual respect and active listening. By creating a safe and open space first, you’ll find your team is able to put aside personal agendas to discover and celebrate a common vision.  

Not only do you bring stakeholders together this way, but you also allow them to co-create a collaborative work culture that will serve successful strategy implementation for years to come. And that relates directly to…

Step Two: Relationship-building with External Stakeholders – Including Critiques!

The strategic planning process gives you the perfect excuse to really engage external stakeholders through interviews, focus groups, surveys, and other tools. These tools are certainly useful for gathering market research to inform your decisions and goals. But they’re also a great way to engage – or re-engage – external stakeholders who are key to the implementation of your ultimate plan.

Be they funders, partners, or connectors, you need their support to increase your impact. So when a consultant (a more neutral, third party) asks them to communicate about your organization’s strengths, weaknesses, and progress, the process lends itself to incorporating constructive critiques. It lets your funders and partners know that you truly value their constructive feedback. And that will build your relationship and perhaps defuse any potential tension in the process. These relationship-building efforts can pay off in countless ways in the long run for the success of your strategic plan.

Step Three: Helping Your Organization Value Data-Informed Decisions

Beyond the soft skills like relationship-building, your strategic focus also requires smart and insightful use of hard data. We often receive requests to conduct a one-day workshop and then produce a strategic plan. But we strongly advise against this approach. Here’s why.

Decision-making that’s not grounded in market realities and objective data is, at best, business as usual. At worst, it’s a whole bunch of navel-gazing that can take your organization down the wrong path. At CiTTA, we believe that good decisions are only made after reviewing and digesting facts and analysis – coupled with a sensitivity to your political and social realities. The two go hand-in-hand.

In almost every strategic planning project we’ve done, our clients experience “A-ha!” or “Oh…?!” moments as they look at the research we’ve conducted. These moments help bring everyone together quickly and move them on to discussing next steps and their implications. That may mean tough decisions about services your organization provides, or potentially major changes to your business models. But we believe in imparting the power of data to adapt to changing circumstances. After all, your strategic plan is a living, breathing document that should be used, reviewed, and revised every year (after another round of data-driven research, of course!).

Strategic planning is (so much) more than planning

Strategic planning is crucial to clarifying your key priorities in the coming years, and these priorities are what’s going to drive your goal-setting and action planning. The exciting and valuable aspects of it all lie not only in the plan you hold in your hands at the end of the day. It’s about fostering respect and understanding of differences, energizing your stakeholders, and making decisions that are substantiated by real data and analysis. That’s so much more than planning. It’s the journey of building a strong foundation that can serve your organization well for the long term.

We’re honored to have had the opportunity to help many mission-driven organizations along that journey. If you’re ready to get more out of your next round of strategic planning, we’d love to sit down and brainstorm with you!