Whether your organization is relatively small and entirely volunteer run or large with a high number of paid and volunteer staff a strategic plan is essential to anchoring your organization around a key set of priorities that outline what you do and provides a framework for how you are going to do it. It also might create limitations and constraints, but identifying these is crucial to getting the focus and sharpness needed for success. To move beyond the ‘why’ of the strategic plan, we continued our conversation with Don McCreesh (former chair of Imagine Canada and current Chair of our Standards council) to understand what really goes into it in terms of steps.
The road to a great strategic planning process begins with directors who understand their roles and responsibilities. Don explains:
“Being a director is almost like another career; board members need training (though board training is not as widespread [as we might think]). It is important for boards to realize what they should and should not be doing.”
Passion for the mission of the organization – while necessary to carry us through such a commitment – skills in strategy, business process and management oversight are also essential. At the same time, finding the balance between board oversight and plan execution can be tricky.
We know that charitable organizations vary widely in size, make up, and organizational structure. During our conversation it struck me that in interest of time and limited resources organizations might not be able to invest staff time in these steps. Don’s response points to the importance of creating space for staff to be involved:
“Smaller organizations can work their way through strategic discussion more easily than larger organizations. It is key that you need buy-in from the staff and the board needs to approve the end product. This eventually comes down to a conversation between board, stakeholders and staff.”
Key phases of strategic planning
The board is responsible for the strategic plan with regards to oversight in its creation and final approval in putting it into action. Who is involved in developing the plan and how does it get developed? Don shared a concise five stage approach that helps us understand that balance between board and staff roles:
Phase 1 – Environmental Scan: There is a lot of pre-work that can be done by staff and/or board. This is often done through a board sub-committee. It starts with a review of the environment (internal and external). Key questions to ask in the scanning are:
- What is happening with public policy?
- Who are our competitors?
- What are the prevailing social issues influencing our work?
Phase 2 – SWOT analysis: The chair with the ED and perhaps the sub-committee perform a SWOT analysis. This can add a lot of value and give a snapshot of what is happening on ground.
Phase 3 – Board and Management work together on vision, mission and strategic objectives: This information is presented to the extended board and may include more senior staff or the key management team of the organization. They should review the mission and vision of organization and determine strategic goals – do they line up? From this there is an understanding of what is to be accomplished in next 3-5 years. Note that PHASE 1 and 2 are really pre-work and are intended to generate discussion.
Phase 4 – Management and Staff establish activities that deliver on the proposed plan: Now it’s time to take all this information and really understand what can be put in place to achieve these goals. Do we anticipate any changes to the organization and how significant are they? What funding is needed? What do we need to start and stop doing? Management needs to get feedback from staff.
Phase 5 – Board Approval Management brings this analysis back to board and there needs to be enough content so that board will understand the financial and tactical implications. The board can map risks and debate management’s proposal. Ultimately, the board is responsible for approving the plan. The ED then mobilizes the staff to put the plan into immediate action and map out measures of success.
Expectations vs. reality: Breaking the news that the plan is not shaping up
The plan is set, the buy-in was there, but is a less than perfect world and events can turn what seemed like a great plan into an unwelcome guest for staff. What happens if we are not able to follow the plan because of unforeseen circumstances, new opportunities or other derailments?
“Good management should never surprise a board. It is up to the board, after assessing risks, to realize if a goal within the plan is not feasible. If a board has put together a good plan and mapped out risks, there should not be too many surprises. The board needs to do their homework. There is always some risk associated with a strategic plan but it should be realistically designed to achieve and meet goals.
Regular status reports need to diagnose why things go off track. The board on a regular basis should monitor progress on programs (delivered by management) outlining key strategies and goals, expectations – status report on programs. They should be asking the question if things are off track, what can we do to get back on track or do we alter the plan accordingly?”
There is a lot of onus on the most senior staff member to communicate these messages, particularly when a board is transitioning from being an operating board towards a governance board model. What needs to be in place to support that senior staff member in having a healthy and open relationship with the board.
“A way to ensure positive relationships is to ensure the board’s role and the CEO’s role are very clear. Having clear board mandate and terms of reference ensures accountability.”
Finally, I broached the difficult topic of when an individual board member may have differing opinions of which activities are worth pursuing with the rest of the board or with the staff.
“Individual directors can have their own wish list but the board as a whole makes their own decisions surrounding vision, mission and goals. They need to agree as a group, and once the plan is agreed upon, individuals need to drop specific goals and get on board. If an individual has a major issue, they may need to resign. So the hidden problem here is what to do if certain board members are steering the agenda. In this case, there needs to be a dialogue with board members about their role and investment.”