A Strategic Plan, as other GovLoop contributors have noted, can be a powerful tool for advancing an agency or organization’s goals. Yet these plans are often like British logician Lewis Carroll’s Caterpillar: “wrong from beginning to end.” What separates a strategic plan and process that strengthens the organization from one that ends up being what some might call Strategery, going through the motions or even causing more harm than good?
As a government employee working in local and federal public health for more than a decade, I’ve seen (and been part of teams developing) strategic plans that led to positive changes in and for an organization and others that were sheepishly posted in an online corner. Here are ten lessons learned:
- Everyone plays: For better and for worse, a strategic plan reflects an organization’s culture. An egalitarian organization that values personal relationships, character and teamwork will go out of its way to make sure everyone is part of its process. By contrast, other organizations may exclude and alienate many in and outside the organization who could contribute. Everyone can be part of strategic planning in some way, as a writer or reviewer, focus group participant, committee member, listening session or focus group leader and so on.
- Not everyone leads: While everyone has a role to play, clearly identifying a core team in charge of the process is fundamental to its success. A group of 3-5 staff with clear leadership support can help coordinate the strategic planning process and make sure its goals and deadlines are met.
- Public and other stakeholder input should be valued: In addition to involving its own staff, members of the general public and such stakeholders as consumer groups, other government agencies, associations and grantees should be able to weigh in and contribute during an agency’s strategic planning process. Some agencies may publish draft plans online or seek input through the Federal Register. Planning listening sessions, sharing ideas at meetings, conducting surveys and holding focus groups and 1:1 discussions with key informants also can be helpful.
- Timeliness matters: Sometimes as at the federal level an organization may have regulatory deadlines for a plan. In other instances, major milestones and timelines may be established by an organization’s strategic planning team and leaders. Completing the plan in a timely manner is vital; a strategic plan submitted long after its required or planned end date may have less impact.
- Brevity is wit: Some of the best plans in and outside government I’ve seen are only a few pages with an infographic. If a strategic plan is more than 10-15 pages long, something has gone seriously wrong. A strategic plan is not an annual report, peer-reviewed journal article or a Congressional (budget) Justification. It is an expression of the organization’s vision, mission, priorities and future goals. You don’t get paid by the word.
- Optimize for mobile: Increasingly, with more Americans relying on smartphones and similar devices, a plan won’t be read if it’s not available in mobile formats. Likewise, public input, when solicited, should use all available tools. Yes, it’s important to respect the digital divide in how we implement our programs, including strategic planning, and to ensure there is more than one way to contribute or read a plan. But developing accessible and technology-friendly materials also is important.
- Use Plain Language: Plain language emphasizes clear and concise communications, without jargon, acronyms and tech-speak. A strategic plan is an organization’s elevator pitch. It doesn’t have to be long and complicated even if an organization’s activities in fact are highly technical.
- The organization, not its consultants, drive the process: There’s nothing wrong with hiring consultants or contractors to support an organization’s strategic planning. But a strategic plan is something you build together, not something you buy. Accordingly, the heavy lifting should be done by an organization’s staff who are talking, meeting and working across and even outside the organization to plan its future.
- What now? Even a well-written plan may have little impact without implementation plans. An organization’s implementation goals should be explained in the report, clear appendices or follow on documents and periodic progress reports.
- What next? OK, the strategic plan is done and it’s a great one. A team is working to implement its goals. When does the next planning cycle begin? If the strategic planning team, other agency staff and leadership remain engaged, the plan’s goals are more likely to be implemented and an organization won’t have to start again from scratch once a new plan needs to be developed.
A strategic plan that is well-written and collaboratively developed can make a big difference for an organization. These ten lessons can help ensure a plan that strengthen the organization and contributes toward its mission.
The author has worked on public health programs at the federal and local levels, including strategic planning and quality improvement activities. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
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