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The Importance of Collaborative Strategic Planning

It’s a busy time of year for us at Strategic Steps, as we work with multiple organizations in the creation of their new three-, four- or five-year Strategic Plans. We’re lucky to assist a variety of organization types in the creation of their Strategic Plans, including municipalities, non-profit organizations, professional associations and colleges, and other Council- and Board-driven groups.


The word ‘assist’ is an important distinction here — we help organizations create their own plans, by guiding them through the process, and developing a finalized plan that speaks to their wants and needs. Our role is to pull everything together and make the plan actionable, but the organization owns the plan, and they’re the subject matter experts of their Strategic Plan.


While the structures of each type of organization differ — often in line with their strategic focus — the principles of good governance remain, and the overall approach to Strategic Planning is largely similar. Resulting plans are obviously quite unique, and are based on the needs of each individual organization; still, one of the through-lines that exists regardless of organization type is the need for collaboration in the planning process.


When conducting initial internal engagement, and as we facilitate Strategic Planning workshops, we like to ensure the group we’re working with is manageable in size, and that it includes those relevant to the planning process — but we do want to include more than just Board or Council Members. This is done for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which are the absolute necessity of organizational buy-in as part of an effective Strategic Plan, and the understanding that experts in the organization are those people who deliver programs and services.


The feeling of ownership cannot exist only amongst the decision-makers on a Board or Council; it must cascade throughout an organization, further extending to Management, and finally to staff. By involving Senior Managers in the Strategic Planning process alongside Board/Council Members, there is a vital collaborative approach to determining organizational goals, strategies, and priorities. This is done with the notion that, while Board and Council Members make decisions for the organization, Management and staff are the ones executing the strategies and deliverables behind those decisions.


The inclusion of different pieces of an organization in the Strategic Planning conversation allows for a higher understanding of intent — on both sides of the organization. Why do voting members want to focus on a specific area? What inputs are feeding into the creation of a Council/Board goal? What is being heard in the community? What is being heard from staff? What is the organization’s current capacity, and how does it relate to the wants of Council/Board Members? These are all questions that matter post-Strategic Plan approval, and in making sure the Strategic Plan is created in a way that it can be executed upon successfully.


Including Management in Strategic Planning also allows for the injection of organizational knowledge to the process. Elected and appointed members often act as a bridge between stakeholders and the organization, but their role is specifically not to be involved in operations. Good governance means staying out of the weeds as much as possible, while proper Management means executing upon the organization’s goals and priorities at the highest level possible. These are significantly different roles, accompanied by distinct backgrounds and knowledge spheres. While a first-time Board or Council Member may have their finger on the pulse of the community, Management typically has its finger on the pulse of the organization.


This internal knowledge is key to the development of a successful Strategic Plan. Has a desired goal been targeted before? Have certain desired strategies been tried before? Were they successful? What worked? What didn’t work? The inclusion of internal knowledge and history means that deliverables outlined in Strategic Plans are properly aligned to the plan’s Key Performance Indicators, and other measurables. Ensuring organizational aspirations align with the organization’s internal capacity, while building on successes and challenges to date, means the plan has the best chance of succeeding.


Finally, consideration must be given to how the development of the Strategic Plan filters down to actionable priorities — another area in which it proves beneficial to have both Council/Board Members and Management involved in the planning process. There is a much larger conversation to be had here, as it extends beyond the scope of the actual Strategic Planning process; the finalized Strategic Plan will cascade to business and departmental plans. This results in the plan priorities falling into both governance (Council/Board) and operations (Management). The best-functioning organizations tend to include individuals knowing their roles within the organization, and how they contribute to the organization’s success — as well as those who seek to work collaboratively with others who possess different knowledge, expertise and skill-sets, in a combined effort towards the betterment of the organization as a whole.


Removing the silos that can sometimes exist between decision-makers and operations provides a comprehensive approach to organizational success. Though the finalized Strategic Plan is owned by a Council or Board, the plan sets direction for the organization as a whole. Creating the Strategic Plan with that intent in mind goes a long way in making sure it is not only aspirational, but also that it is realistic and actionable.


If you have any thoughts on this, or questions, please feel free to reach out! I can be contacted at ben@strategicsteps.ca.

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