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Setting Sail

Ever wonder why an awesome idea or vision doesn’t come to fruition? Usually, it is because the steps to achieve that fabulous idea are not well thought out or worse, the steps to achieve that idea are not totally understood.


It’s a bit like a captain and ship. When a ship set sails out of port, the captain and team need to have a clear understanding of where they are going and what tumultuous environment they may sailing through. The temperature, the wind, the size of the waves, locations of emergency stops, and most important, the capacity of the ship and crew members. Through all sea journeys, the captain and senior crew must know where they are going, the various ways to get there, the timelines and when they need to pivot or even completely redirect.


An organization, whether it be a municipal council, school board or not-for profit are in the same “boat” so to speak. Organizations need clear direction, a focus on the destination and an understanding of capacity. This all calls for sound planning.


When you strategically plan, you start by throwing all kinds of ideas at the wall to see what’s going to stick. You have frank discussions and soon begin to distill down the most important issues for the organization and the clients (or residents) you serve. These final big ideas (I call them “big rocks”) are what your plan will grow around.


A wise man told me once ‘you should only have as many rocks as you can hold in one hand’, so between four and six big ideas are enough for any organization to take on. For a municipality, these big rocks could be anything from environmental stewardship, a strong economy, health and safety of residents, sturdy infrastructure or it may be to improve on communication, leadership, and engagement. The big rocks represent positive change for the future.


When the big rocks are decided on, the plan starts to take shape. From there your goals and strategies are uniquely developed within the context of your organization in consultation with your stakeholders (of course). The great thing about this process is that the direction set is accomplished through thoughtful conversation and collaboration.

It has been a great privilege to have sat on many kinds of boards and councils over the years. My participation has been as a volunteer, appointed by government, and as elected both provincially and locally. These wonderful organizations are very different from one another, but the common thread is that at the board level, they all need clarity of vision, clarity in roles and responsibilities, and an understanding of steps required to achieve outcomes. The plan is built with a positive future in mind and that’s exciting.


There is one certainty, boards and councils rarely get a chance to have frank conversations out of the public eye; most of their work is in the board room dealing with motions and resolutions. Debates can get heated and at times, frustration and anger can ensue. I would argue that a good strategic planning session can set the stage for thoughtful debate and respect for each other.


Strategic planning is as much a team building exercise as it is a task to be completed. When governance and administration come together and spend a couple of days together, you learn from each other, you learn about each other, you learn about organizational limitations and you begin to understand perspectives that perhaps you hadn’t considered before. When you seek to understand, you can be more mindful of your approach making it easier to reach a shared vision. It is from here that a strategic plan begins to grow.

Finally, to ensure your strategic plan doesn’t sit on the proverbial shelf, your organization will need to develop a corporate plan as a companion document. Boards and councils have set the direction and now management takes that plan, fills in the detail with tactics and strategies, and reports back with progress. Back to the ship analogy – as the ship sets sail, capacity may change, the environment may change and you may have to redirect, take a completely different route, or cancel the voyage altogether.


Alberta’s local election of 2021 and the Saskatchewan vote in 2020 left hundreds of councils and school boards with newly elected players at the table. Many strategic planning sessions have taken place or are in the wings to proceed. Colleagues are learning from one another and visions for a productive term are in place. BC, Manitoba, and Ontario all have elections in the fall of 2022. In those provinces, there will be opportunity for new councils and boards to set sail with a clear direction.


No one wants a mutiny! Planning strategically opens the door to clear sailing.

What’s the state of your ship as your own organization sets sail for its unique adventures? Do you know what your successful destination looks like and how you are going to get there? Please feel free to reach out by email at jacquie@strategicsteps.ca

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I suppose this post is intended as much for the general public as it is for those involved in local government, though it certainly shows the value of what local government provides. I was challenged

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