Q&A: What is Strategic Planning?

by David Norgard, Adjunct Faculty, AULA BA Program
Strategic planning answers a basic question: Where do you want to go as an organization?

photo by Kazi Shefaet Rahman, Illuminatus Rex, via Wikimedia Commons

Another way to put it is: What do you want to see happen? Or, again: What do you want to accomplish? That question begs another: How are you going to get there? How are you going to realize your aspirations? A sound strategic planning process helps leaders arrive at informed, clear answers to these most basic questions.

Why should we bother? (Who knows what the future will bring anyway?)
A popular adage used in strategic planning is a retort to this question: If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there. Nevertheless, some of us are familiar with situations where much time, effort and money was spent on producing a very elaborate plan, only to have it put into a three-ring binder, placed on a shelf, and collect dust until a new occupant in the office threw it out. A good strategic plan is valuable in that it provides a continuing reminder of what you really want and need to accomplish, even in the midst of a hundred other possibilities and detours. It provides clarity about mission, vision, values, and priorities… And that clarity helps leaders make more informed decisions about everything from program initiatives to infrastructure requirements.

What does the process involve?
The strategic planning process can be relatively quick and simple or lengthy and complex. How extensive the process should be depends largely on the size and complexity of the organization. For example, an agency with a single program and a budget of less than $1M requires a far less elaborate approach than an agency with multiple programs and an operating budget over $5M. Nevertheless, every strategic planning process, however abbreviated or extensive, should include these elements:

  1. Review existing Mission, Vision, and Values Statements and revise and refine as appropriate. If no such statements exist, draft them so that the organization has succinct descriptions of what it does (mission), what it wants to accomplish (external vision), and how and/or why it does its work (values). These statements are the foundation of a strategic plan.
  2. Assess the organization’s current situation and context by gathering and analyzing information from both internal and external sources. Most commonly this is done through a “SWOT Analysis” – a survey and review of internal strengths and weaknesses and external opportunities and threats.
  3. Build agreement about strategic priorities. The assessment will likely point to where the organization needs to focus its time and energy. Arriving at consensus about strategic priorities sets up the plan’s overall framework.
  4. Identify functional goals and specific objectives. The goals explain how the established priorities will be achieved in general, and the objectives detail how each project will be tackled. They provide the “finish work.”
  5. Adopt the plan and commit to reviewing it regularly. A strategic plan should be formally adopted by a vote of the board. An annual review and revision is best done by a committee composed of both board and staff members.

Who should be involved in the process?
At a minimum, the board of directors and the senior staff need to be involved actively in all major steps of the process. Sometimes, a planning committee guides the process and coordinates the participation of others. The assessment stage particularly may involve getting input from a range of internal stakeholders and external experts. These may include affiliate (national/local) representatives, allied organization leaders, clients, donors, members, neighbors, partners, referral sources, sponsors, and authorities on the subjects most relevant to the organization’s purposes.

When should the process be undertaken?
Every organization without a strategic plan should have one. So, in general, there is no virtue in waiting. However, there are certain circumstances when some delay is prudent. Do not attempt to launch a planning process if the organization is about to change executive leadership or is in the midst of dealing with a crisis.

What happens when the planning process is completed?
It is critically important for the plan to be monitored regularly and revised as appropriate. Even more importantly, the plan is worth nothing without an implementation schedule. As soon as the plan is adopted by the board, prepare a timetable that assigns goals and objectives to lead individuals and provides dates for progress and/or completion. A date should also be set for an annual review.

In addition to being an Adjunct Faculty member in the B.A. Program of Antioch University Los Angeles, Guest Blogger David Norgard is the founder of OD180, a consulting firm that develops strategies for nonprofit organizations. He has also held leadership roles on various nonprofit boards and committees. At present, he serves as the President of Integrity USA, the Episcopal Church’s LGBT advocacy group. A graduate of AULA’s M.A. in Organizational Management program, David currently serves as Chair of AULA’s Alumni & Community Advisory Board. He also holds a B.A. magna cum laude from Augsburg College and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School, where he received a Dean’s Citation for Community Service and an Award of Distinction among Alumni.

A Few Words to College Grads: It Really is NOT about YOU

by Pat Palleschi, Ph.D.
Okay… let me get some of my own biases out first:

Their caps aren't the only thing up in the air...

1. I believe that unemployment is far higher than the reported figures in the Los Angeles Region. Not true? Then, at the very least, we deserve some transparency about the assumptions that were used to get to the published rate, so we can all be knowledgeable about the real situation.

2. I don’t care what your politics are. I have not heard of a single politician who has paid sufficient attention to JOB CREATION. And, because of the inattention, FEW new jobs have been created. Especially in Los Angeles.

3. The people who are lucky enough to be working are generally unhappy. In the past this would mean that they would be looking for new jobs. BUT, NO! The lucky employed are going to cling to their jobs by their fingernails despite their unhappiness because they know that it is ugly out there in the job market. Employed people are clinging to jobs that have forced them to work more and more hours without a single cent added to their salaries for years.

If my beliefs approach reality, then grads need to consider this advice:

  • Job search is extraordinarily hard now and it is NOT about YOU, your minor flaws, your age, your level of experience — it is all about the time, geography and economy. (This echoes the sentiments of David Brooks in New York Times).
  • Blame is usually not useful — so consider this not “blame” but a cry for help: JOB CREATION needed, Washington!
  • What is important for you to do is to DISREGARD all the old advice (“follow your passion,” “do what you love,” “find work that will provide meaning,” etc.) because that will get in the way of getting you to work. And getting you a place to live. And eating.
  • In this economy, I want to remind all of us that work is in itself a useful and meaningful pursuit, if done well. Doing work well can be a passion and can provide meaning, even if it is working at a cash register at Whole Foods or being a janitor at Costco or a career coach at The Executive Agency.
  • Okay, you may be “better than that” — and I agree you probably have more skills than such a position requires and are “worth” much more than the pay. But, eating is a big part of life, and if you can eat, then you can spend a bit more time figuring out how to make your “passion” into something that some venture/venture fund will pay for.
  • “Existence precedes and rules essence.” — Sartre
  • Work is meaningful. Doing any work well is admirable.

Why am I so strident about this? I have listened to commencement speakers, and I want to shout at them: “STOP!”

Commencement speakers are usually wealthy donors to the university who are happy to think back to how they followed their passion to find (take your pick) wealth, innovation, power, and/or the meaning of life.

Well, at least in the Los Angeles region, this is not the usual experience right now.

If a grad waits to find the job that will fuel passion, the wait time may be a long stay on a parent’s/friend’s couch, without a cent, playing video games and clutching on to fragile sanity.

Work at something (dare I say “anything”?). Volunteer at something (anything). Enjoy the fact that you can do something well. Then reflect on your real work, the work that you have accomplished. In any work, you can uncover the gold veins of passion and meaning.

PS: And make sure to find someone to vote for who understands how to CREATE jobs… so, with luck, the next generation can take the time to be playful innovators post graduation. Let’s get back to the opportunities afforded the old generation not so long ago (Mark Zuckerberg’s generation?).

Guest Blogger Pat Palleschi is the President of The Executive Agency. She has devoted the past 25 years to creating HR strategies that help organizations and individuals succeed. As VP of Human Resources Development at Disneyland, she helmed the Disney University, where she and her team made it their mission to attract, develop and retain Disney Cast members who were “pumped to perform.” Before Disney, Pat served as Senior VP of Training for Bank of America. She earned her doctorate at the University of Massachusetts and chaired the Speech Communication Department at Loyola Marymount