By Jane Logan
This article was first published
in The Canadian Association in January 2004.
Planning to plan? Preparing an organization for a
strategic planning exercise is like preparing for a trip. Deciding
to go and being ready to leave are two different things. Among the
considerations are timing, commitment, getting people on board and
data gathering. Here are some pre-planning tips and considerations
for starting the journey to mapping out your organizations
Pick your timing:
- Dont do it during a crisis
Its hard to take a long-term view when your house is burning
down. Crises can be a rallying point for an association. When
their members business case is changed overnight
because of such things as new legislation, advances in technology
or global or economic factors good associations kick into
high gear with a strong plan to mitigate or even capitalize on
the situation. But dont confuse crisis management with strategic
planning. Crises are largely reactive opportunities. Deal with
them first, and then set aside time for a proactive look at how
you can create the conditions for future success.
- Respect the planning cycle
Theres a strong temptation for outgoing CEOs or Board Chairs
to leave their house in order by nailing a new strategic
plan at the end of their term. Its satisfying. It leaves
a personal stamp on the organization. It sets objectives based
on experience for the new team. Some even restructure the organization
as their farewell gift. All of this is well intentioned but unfair
and impractical. Planning cycles start with the beginning of a
new mandate, not with the end of an old one. New leadership must
be given an opportunity to inspire, take advantage of new thinking
and above all, have ownership of the plans it is responsible for
executing. This ownership is essential - no one ever washes a
rental car. You cant expect passion and commitment to a
plan forged by the old guard.
- Recognize that some organizations require team-building first.
For associations with badly divided boards, high turnover, or
feuding staff, a full-blown strategic planning process is a risky
starting point for real cooperation. To establish teamwork for
both planning and its execution, organizations may wish to consider
management training for senior staff, or starting the Board group
off slowly with a highly interactive session on a related topic
or issue. For many groups, creating a decision-making framework
can be very helpful.
Make a real commitment:
Unless youre committed to spending time and
resources, dont expect a quality result. You cant accomplish
strategic planning on the fly, tucked into existing Board agendas.
Separate time must be set aside. Staff who will be instrumental
in preparing background information for the session may have to
put other projects on the backburner to ensure you have whats
Make sure the right people are on board:
- Your CEO should be the champion of the process.
While strategic planning is teamwork, it also needs strong leadership
to succeed. You need a top-level driver who is committed to planning
- Broad participation pays off in the end.
Dont be afraid of having too many people involved in your
planning meeting. Ideally, the entire Board should be invited
with input from other key stakeholders too. It will ensure representative
input and greater ownership of the results. The higher the participation,
the higher the commitment to your new strategic direction. A small
planning group or Board subcommittee working alone is a false
- If low Board attendance threatens, pick a new date.
A planning process builds consensus. When it takes place at the
start of a new Board mandate, it can be a key element in creating
team spirit and a decision-making culture that involves new Board
members. If you forge ahead with a low turn-out, youll spend
the rest of the year explaining to people what they missed and
rearguing every decision. Youll also miss valuable input.
Make sure there is plenty of advance notice and time to prepare
for the planning session.
- Include the people who will implement the plan.
Staff commitment increases when they are involved in planning
after all, its hard to resist your own ideas. These
are the people who will determine and execute the details. They
should participate in the discussion, vision development and passion
that forge a new agenda, and understand the trade-offs that are
acceptable in shaping a realistic work plan to accommodate new
- Include your subject experts.
Regulation? Technology? Customer service? Internal Finance? Subject
experts are important to a strong planning outcome.
- Use surveys or focus groups to gain insight from groups of
people who cant or shouldnt be present.
Member surveys and stakeholder surveys can make the world
of difference in forging new directions. What do key stakeholders
think of your organization and the challenges you face? You will
need a strong appreciation of your organizations strengths
to plan effectively, but insiders can develop tunnel-vision
regarding where these strengths lie. Web-based surveys or annual
conference sessions can deliver new insight to your planning team
as pre-planning exercises.
- Make sure you have a great facilitator, whether internal
This will free up your CEO to participate, make efficient use
of time, ensure participants all have an opportunity to contribute,
challenge the status quo when necessary, and help you stay focussed
on moving from vision to action.
Gather and distribute the right information in
Advance information allows your planning team to focus
and arrive primed for discussion, providing its relevant and
not overwhelming. Its a little like packing your bags for
travel. Too much baggage or the wrong items will weigh you down
unnecessarily. Too little will leave your team unprepared for the
These are just some of the important preparations.
A thoughtful review of these elements will help you avoid some common
roadblocks and set you on the right track for the journey to planning
© Jane Logan. Not to be used without permission