Strategic Planning 101
There are many variations of the strategic planning theme but in simplest terms strategic planning is figuring out where we want our community to go over the next year or more, choosing how we’re going to get there, and defining how we’ll know when we arrived. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that and often the best strategic plans are noted for their simplicity and clarity of purpose.
There are probably as many perspectives, models and approaches used in strategic planning as there are organizations that have developed strategic plans — but that’s to be expected since strategic planning is by design a customized process that is all about integrating local assets, conditions and opportunities into a winning formula for each community. No two communities are the same so their strategic plans should not be exactly alike either.
We’ve heard from the experts that there are no right or wrong answers in strategic planning, just different methods to use to find your own answers. Each community has to take stock of its capabilities, expertise and intentions in adapting the principles of strategic planning to charting its future course. For some communities the outcome may be a short list of goals whereas others may produce multi-year multi-option scenarios with contingency plans.
The measure of strategic planning success is not the complexity of the plan but rather the fit and effectiveness of its implementation in each community. It’s important to remember that this isn’t meant to be planning for planning sake; it’s meant to be planning with the purpose of getting something done — and getting things done depends upon understanding the nuances and nature of the community’s leadership, culture, complexity of the environment, size of the community, expertise of planners, resources, etc. That’s why you can find such a variety of strategic planning models, from goals-based to scenario based, each one has diagnostic and proscriptive characteristics that have to fit within a range of community contexts.
Goals-based planning is probably the most common practice and it starts with a focus on the organization’s mission, vision and values. From that basis goals are set in place to accomplish the mission, and then strategies are identified to achieve the goals. And finally, action plans (who will do what and by when) are laid out to implement the strategies that will achieve the goals and fulfill the mission.
Issues-based is an alternative strategic planning process that starts by examining issues facing the organization, then selecting strategies to address those issues, and once again outlining action plans to resolve implement the strategy. Organic strategic planning might start by articulating the organization’s vision and values and then action plans are developed to achieve the vision with a strong value centered approach. Some plans are scoped to one year, many to three years, and some to five to ten years into the future. Some plans include only top-level information and no action plans. Some plans are five to eight pages long, while others can be considerably longer.
In the end whatever works best for each community is what’s best.
While each community needs to adapt strategy outcomes to their unique circumstances there are still some fundamental components that are helpful to use. How they are used and the level of effort exerted may vary but typically strategic planning involves some degree of strategic analysis, strategic direction, and action planning.
1. Strategic Analysis
This activity can include conducting some sort of scan, or review, of the organization’s environment e.g., the political, social, economic and technical environment. Planners carefully consider various driving forces in the environment, for example, increasing competition, changing demographics, etc. Planners also look at the various strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (an acronym for this activity is SWOT) regarding the organization or community.
Some people take this wide look around after they’ve identified or updated their mission statement, vision statement, values statement, etc. These statements are briefly described below. Other people conduct the analysis before reviewing the statements.
Note that in the past, organizations usually referred to the phrase “long-range planning“. More recently, planners use the phrase “strategic planning”. This new phrase is meant to capture the strategic (comprehensive, thoughtful, well-placed) nature of this type of planning.
2. Setting Strategic Direction
Planners carefully come to conclusions about what the organization must do as a result of the major issues and opportunities facing the organization. These conclusions include what overall accomplishments (or strategic goals) the organization should achieve, and the overall methods (or strategies) to achieve the accomplishments. Goals should be designed and worded as much as possible to be specific, measurable, acceptable to those working to achieve the goals, realistic, timely, extending the capabilities of those working to achieve the goals, and rewarding to them, as well. (An acronym for these criteria is “SMARTER”.)
At some point in the strategic planning process (sometimes in the activity of setting the strategic direction), planners identify or update what might be called the strategic “philosophy”. This includes identifying or updating the organization’s mission, vision and/or values statements. Mission statements are brief written descriptions of the purpose of the organization. Mission statements vary in nature from very brief to quite comprehensive, and including having a specific purpose statement that is part of the overall mission statement. Many people consider the values statement and vision statement to be part of the mission statement.
Vision statements are usually a compelling description of how the organization will or should operate at some point in the future and of how customers or clients are benefitting from the organization’s products and services. Values statements list the overall priorities in how the organization will operate. Some people focus the values statement on moral values. Moral values are values that suggest overall priorities in how people ought to act in the world, for example, integrity, honesty, respect, etc. Other people include operational values which suggest overall priorities for the organization, for example, to expand marketshare, increase efficiency, etc.
3. Action Planning
Action planning is carefully laying out how the strategic goals will be accomplished. Action planning often includes specifying objectives, or specific results, with each strategic goal. Therefore, reaching a strategic goal typically involves accomplishing a set of objectives along the way — in that sense, an objective is still a goal, but on a smaller scale.
Often, each objective is associated with a tactic, which is one of the methods needed to reach an objective. Therefore, implementing a strategy typically involves implementing a set of tactics along the way — in that sense, a tactic is still a strategy, but on a smaller scale.
Action planning also includes specifying responsibilities and timelines with each objective, or who needs to do what and by when. It should also include methods to monitor and evaluate the plan, which includes knowing how the organization will know who has done what and by when.
It’s common to develop an annual plan (sometimes called the operational plan or management plan), which includes the strategic goals, strategies, objectives, responsibilities and timelines that should be done in the coming year. Often, organizations will develop plans for each major function, division department, etc., and call these work plans.
Usually, budgets are included in the strategic and annual plan, and with work plans. Budgets specify the money needed for the resources that are necessary to implement the annual plan.