Tips for Strategic Planning

Have you reached a crossroads? Maybe your team is lacking focus, or your goals feel flat?  

These are examples of signs that you could benefit from strategic planning.  

A reliable strategic plan can help you regain a sense of direction and zero in on the right steps to take next. Better yet, it can help generate collaboration and renew a group’s commitment to practical possibilities.  

In some cases, strategic planning can mean nothing less than the difference between success and failure for your organization. 

What is strategic planning?  

Strategic planning is a flexible facilitation method that combines various approaches to help individuals and groups get on the same page and excited about a shared vision. The end result is a strategic plan—a document that provides a framework for success, including clear action steps to guide your team in the right direction over a given period of time.   

A three- or five-year plan plan will outline: 

  • Your strategic directions and goals 
  • Actions steps to get you to your goals 
  • Obstacles and outcomes 

The strategic planning process gathers feedback from relevant stakeholders in the process of formulating your strategic plan. You should also receive a process summary you can submit to your board for approval along with the plan itself. 

How much time does strategic planning take?  

The exact form (and amount of time) strategic planning takes depends on your organization’s type, size, and other factors, but typically, we guide organizations through a set of six workshops that take place over the course of one to three months.  

Once you have your strategic plan in place, the initial strategic planning phase is often followed by three quarterly workshops where we revisit the plan, check in on progress, and set goals for the next quarter. One year from the finalization of your strategic plan, you’ll hold an annual meeting where you evaluate the plan and make adjustments for the year ahead.  

We recommend you schedule your strategic planning sessions more than a month in advance to ensure all the necessary stakeholders can be at the table for each workshop. 

What are the 7 stages of strategic planning?  

The number of steps in strategic planning can vary depending on your goals, scope, and the facilitation methods used, but a full strategic planning process generally includes these seven phases:  

  1. Preparation and design
  2. Practical vision 
  3. Underlying contradictions
  4. Strategic directions
  5. Vision, mission and core values
  6. Focused implementation
  7. Quarterly and annual evaluation and planning workshops

Let’s cover all seven of these stages in a little more detail.

1. Preparation and design

Who needs to be involved? What’s the situation and what environmental factors matter? The first step is to clarify your goals and design a framework. 

2. Practical vision 

Share past reports and relevant information to develop your narrative and set the context. Where do you want to be three years from now? Reveal the group’s goals, identify individual hopes and dreams, and create a sense of shared ownership in a vision for the future. 

3. Underlying contradictions

What obstacles are preventing you from achieving your vision? What are the root causes? The key is to dig past the surface issues, which are usually symptoms of deeper problems that the group may or may not be able to solve.

4. Strategic directions

What actions can you take to deal with the obstacles and move toward your vision? Action planning allows us to identify innovative paths forward and set realistic benchmarks. 

5. Vision, mission and core values

What do you currently do? Where do you aspire to go? Define your culture and what it is that sets you apart. Your core values attract like-minded people to your organization, while your vision and mission provide direction, steering the work you do.

6. Focused implementation

Determine what specific, measurable accomplishments will build momentum behind each of your strategic directions. In this stage, we’ll also create a timeline to instill commitment and accountability.

7. Quarterly and annual evaluation and planning workshops

These are three-hour workshops which take place every three months, allowing the team to revisit the strategic plan. These meetings help keep a pulse on progress, ensuring everyone stays on track without losing sight of either the big picture or the concrete action steps that will get us there. 

8 tips for strategic planning success 

Strategic planning is at the core of economic development. We’ve helped dozens of organizations develop strategic plans, and along the way, we’ve identified some common pitfallsof the strategic planning process, as well as several effective ways around them.   

Based on over three decades of guiding groups and combining a variety of different approaches, here are our top tips for a successful strategic planning process. 

1. Get everyone in the same room

Who needs to be involved in the workshops, or the other stages of the strategic planning process? Who needs to be at the table—and if not physically around the same table during the planning sessions, then who should have a voice in framing the process?  

Think about what level of community involvement you require. You might want to include current and past members of the organization, partners, and stakeholders. It’s often appropriate to bring in employees, customers, clients, or even the broader public to some degree. Think about local/city/state entities, DEI leaders, and other movers and shakers who might appreciate having a say.  

Here are three tiers of potential community involvement:  

  • Tier 1: Community Informed – Develop and distribute a survey to canvass community members
  • Tier 2: Community Involved – Develop and host focus groups and/or key stakeholder-focused conversations
  • Tier 3: Community Engaged – Involve community members directly in planning and decision-making groups 

No matter what level you choose, the objective is to gather ideas and tap as much collective knowledge as possible to strengthen your strategy.

2. Identify the issues and set the stage

The strategic planning process should include analysis of internal and external factors which might impact the organization’s performance. This combines with the input you gather from stakeholder discussions and community surveys to build a narrative and set the context for your strategic planning sessions.   

Where relevant, we’ll examine the organization’s inner dynamics and outer environment. This could include demographic shifts in the region, the state of the economy, and other important trends.  

Once you have this information, here are some ways of getting everyone on the same page:  

  • Give an overview of what the organization has done in the past three years or so. 
  • Highlight accomplishments in recent years or since completion of the last strategic plan. 
  • Provide context on the social and economic environment and how it’s changing. 

Also, be sure to give a clear picture of organizational makeup, including who you’re serving. This helps get rid of preconceived notions and grounds the conversation.

3. Determine scope

Based on who needs to be involved, and the issues at stake, what components do you want to include in the strategic planning process?  

You have a lot of options. We use up to 15 environmental assessments per strategic plan, including:  

  • Demographic analysis 
  • Economic trend analysis  
  • Economic impact analysis  
  • Feasibility studies  
  • Community-informed surveys 
  • Strategic committee, board, and staff surveys   
  • Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats (SWOT) analysis 
  • Current reality assessment  
  • Stakeholder interviews  
  • Focus group listening sessions  
  • Wall of Wonder historical scan  
  • Wave metaphor

We’re happy to tell you more about each option and help you decide which ones are right for your process. It’ll depend on what you’re trying to accomplish, project viability, funding sources, and your budget. Which brings us to our next tip…

4. Budget accordingly

How much does a strategic plan cost? It varies, but we sometimes see strategic plans clock in anywhere from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. Keep in mind, strategic planning is flexible based on your resources—whether your organization has a staff of one or hundreds, we can make it work! 

For instance, we work with a variety of clients with different sizes and capacities. Even on a smaller budget, we can set realistic goals in order to achieve satisfactory results—we just might not be able to execute the full process. That might mean conducting one or two environmental assessments instead of six or seven.  

If your organization can budget and set aside a couple thousand dollars a year, this should set you up for a solid three- to five-year strategic planning process.

5. Bring the consensus into focus

Consensus workshops are the backbone of strategic planning. When facilitated with care, they lead to consensus-based group decisions that respect diverse perspectives, create joint resolve, and inspire individual and group action.  

We conduct 10 types of workshops within the first full year of strategic planning. These consensus workshops are designed to: 

  • Engage all group members 
  • Organize the group’s ideas and decisions 
  • Reveal the consensus in groups of any size 
  • Build effective team partnerships 
  • Create shared agreement  

Embedded within the workshops, focused conversations create a setting for meaningful discussions. Additionally, focused conversations probe beneath the surface to the depth of a topic and encourage different viewpoints. They provide structure for clear dialogue as well as the type of reflection that can lead to breakthroughs. 

6. Set strategic directions

Strategic directions are the heart of your strategic plan, and they’re informed by your vision as well as the blocks your organization faces. 

For example, suppose we identify a lack of funding as an issue. Why is there a lack of funding? What are the deeper issues? The first step to solving an issue is to accurately identify it—and that means going straight to its root causes.  

Strong strategic directions tackle an issue head-on, so refer to the root problems that you identified as organizational issues. Then ask: What innovative, substantial actions will deal with the underlying contradictions and move us toward our practical vision?  

The key is to first visualize the completed task. Then, based on the current reality, set three to nine strategic directions for the months ahead. 

7. Create accountability

Too often, an organization will set strategic goals, only to print off a report that sits on a shelf gathering dust while nobody does anything about it.   

It’s vital to create a timeline of actions. Assign each action to someone responsible for completing it within a specific timeframe. This sets clear forms of accountability and develops a coordinated action timeline.  

We begin with the big picture: Where do you want to be 10 years from now? Three years from now? At your annual planning meeting, we’ll set measurable goals on a quarterly timeline. Then at each quarterly meeting, we’ll break it down so each quarterly goal has a 90-day action plan.  

8. Revisit your plan regularly

What happens three years after you develop a three-year strategic plan? Or five years after you finalize a five-year plan? We hold follow-up strategic planning sessions at these milestones where we revisit the plan, revise it, and potentially formulate a new one, depending on how much has changed. 

The annual and quarterly meetings also serve as opportunities to return to a plan and make tweaks as circumstances and goals change. That’s why workshops and check-in meetings are built into the strategic planning process. 

At each quarterly meeting, we’ll review your vision, obstacles, and strategic directions. What was accomplished? What didn’t get done? What are the implications? What’s blocking us from succeeding? What have we learned in the last 90 days? These reflections set the context for the strategic actions we’ll create for the next 90 days. 

Get started with strategic planning 

It’s an irony of organizational development that strategic planning requires planning! It can help to have experienced guides who can steer you through the process. Our approach is always evolving, but it’s informed by the Technology of Participation (ToP) framework from The Institute of Cultural Affairs.   

We also facilitate strategic planning for organizations of all sizes and are happy to talk with you, learn the details about what you have in mind, and help you get started! Reach out to Northspan’s Elissa Hansen or Karl Schuettler for more info or call us at (218) 481-7737.