All About Strategic Planning

Sections of this topic

    Copyright Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD

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    Sections of This Topic Include:

    Four Quizzes to Test Your Current Knowledge

    Introduction to Strategic Planning

    Writing Your Strategic Plan

    Much of the content in this topic applies to for-profits and nonprofits and came from this book

    Nonprofit Strategic Planning and Facilitation - Book Cover


    Conducting Strategic Analysis

    Also consider
    How to Evaluate Organizations

    Setting Strategic Direction

    Developing Action Plans

    Writing and Communicating the Plan

    Implementing, Monitoring, Evaluating and Deviating from the Plan

    Also consider

    General Resources

    General Resources


    Introduction — What is Strategic Planning?

    See a video about an overview of guidelines for conducting sensible strategic planning. From the Consultants Development Institute.

    There Are Various Different Views and Models — and the Process You Use Depends

    Simply put, strategic planning determines where an organization is going over the next year or more, how it’s going to get there, and how it’ll know if it got there or not. The focus of a strategic plan is usually on the entire organization, while the focus of a business plan is usually on a particular product, service, or program.

    There are a variety of perspectives, models, and approaches used in strategic planning. The way that a strategic plan is developed depends on the nature of the organization’s leadership, the culture of the organization, the complexity of the organization’s environment, the size of the organization, the expertise of planners, etc. For example, there are a variety of strategic planning models, including goals-based, issues-based, organic, scenario (some would assert that scenario planning is more of a technique than a model), etc.

    1) Goals-based planning is probably the most common and starts with a focus on the organization’s mission (and vision and/or values), goals to work toward the mission, strategies to achieve the goals, and action planning (who will do what and by when).

    2) Issues-based strategic planning often starts by examining issues facing the organization, strategies to address those issues, and action plans.

    3) Organic strategic planning might start by articulating the organization’s vision and values, and then action plans to achieve the vision while adhering to those values. Some planners prefer a particular approach to planning, eg, appreciative inquiry.

    Some plans are scoped to one year, many to three years, and some to five to ten years into the future. Some plans include only top-level information and no action plans. Some plans are five to eight pages long, while others can be considerably longer.

    Quite often, an organization’s strategic planners already know much of what will go into a strategic plan (this is true for business planning, too). However, the development of the strategic plan greatly helps to clarify the organization’s plans and ensure that key leaders are all “on the same script”. Far more important than the strategic plan document, is the strategic planning process itself.

    Also, in addition to the size of the organization, differences in how organizations carry out the planning activities are more of a matter of the nature of the participants in the organization — than its for-profit/nonprofit status. For example, detail-oriented people may prefer a linear, top-down, general-to-specific approach to planning. On the other hand, rather artistic and highly reflective people may favor a highly divergent and “organic” approach to planning.

    Some Basic Descriptions of Strategic Planning — and a Comparison to Business Planning

    Some Different Models of Strategic Planning

    NOTE: Much of the following information is in regard to goals-based strategic planning, probably the most common form of strategic planning. However, issues-based planning is also a very popular approach to strategic planning — an approach still too often forgotten.

    For-Profit Versus Nonprofit Strategic Planning

    Major differences in how organizations carry out the various steps and associated activities in the strategic planning process are more of a matter of the size of the organization — than its for-profit/nonprofit status. Small nonprofits and small for-profits tend to conduct somewhat similar planning activities that are different from those conducted in large organizations. On the other hand, large nonprofits and large for-profits tend to conduct somewhat similar planning activities that are different from those conducted in small organizations. (The focus of the planning activities is often different between for-profits and nonprofits. Nonprofits tend to focus more on matters of board development, fundraising, and volunteer management. For-profits tend to focus more on activities to maximize profit.)

    Therefore, the reader is encouraged to review a variety of the materials linked from this page, whether he or she is from a nonprofit or for-profit organization. Items below are marked as “nonprofit” in case the reader still prefers to focus on information presented in the context of nonprofit planning.

    (An upcoming section includes numerous overviews of the overall strategic planning process Various Overviews )

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    Benefits of Strategic Planning

    Strategic planning serves a variety of purposes in organizations, including to:
    1. Clearly define the purpose of the organization and establish realistic goals and objectives consistent with that mission in a defined time frame within the organization’s capacity for implementation.
    2. Communicate those goals and objectives to the organization’s constituents.
    3. Develop a sense of ownership of the plan.
    4. Ensure the most effective use is made of the organization’s resources by focusing the resources on the key priorities.
    5. Provide a base from which progress can be measured and establish a mechanism for informed change when needed.
    6. Listen to everyone’s opinions in order to build consensus about where the organization is going.

    Other reasons include strategic planning:
    7. Provides clearer focus for the organization, thereby producing more efficiency and effectiveness.
    8. Bridges staff/employees and the board of directors (in the case of corporations).
    9. Builds strong teams on the board and in the staff/employees (in the case of corporations).
    10. Provides the glue that keeps the board members together (in the case of corporations).
    11. Produces great satisfaction and meaning among planners, especially around a common vision.
    12. Increases productivity from increased efficiency and effectiveness.
    13. Solves major problems in the organization.

    Also, consider

    Strategic Planning in Tough Times — It’s Not Discretionary at All

    When Should Strategic Planning Be Done?

    The scheduling for the strategic planning process depends on the nature and needs of the organization and its immediate external environment. For example, planning should be carried out frequently in an organization whose products and services are in an industry that is changing rapidly. In this situation, planning might be carried out once or even twice a year and done in a very comprehensive and detailed fashion (that is, with attention to mission, vision, values, environmental scan, issues, goals, strategies, objectives, responsibilities, timelines, budgets, etc). On the other hand, if the organization has been around for many years and is in a fairly stable marketplace, then planning might be carried out once a year, and only certain parts of the planning process, for example, action planning (objectives, responsibilities, timelines, budgets, etc) are updated each year. Consider the following guidelines:

    1. Strategic planning should be done when an organization is just getting started. (The strategic plan is usually part of an overall business plan, along with a marketing plan, financial plan, and operational/management plan.)

    2. Strategic planning should also be done in preparation for a new major venture, for example, developing a new department, division, major new product or line of products, etc.

    3. Strategic planning should also be conducted at least once a year in order to be ready for the coming fiscal year (the financial management of an organization is usually based on a year-to-year, or fiscal year, basis). In this case, strategic planning should be conducted in time to identify the organizational goals to be achieved at least over the coming fiscal year, the resources needed to achieve those goals, and the funding needed to obtain the resources. These funds are included in budget planning for the coming fiscal year. However, not all phases of strategic planning need to be fully completed each year. The full strategic planning process should be conducted at least once every three years. As noted above, these activities should be conducted every year if the organization is experiencing tremendous change.

    4. Each year, action plans should be updated.

    5. Note that, during the implementation of the plan, the progress of the implementation should be reviewed at least on a quarterly basis by the board. Again, the frequency of review depends on the extent of the rate of change in and around the organization.

    Various Overviews of Strategic Planning Processes and Samples of Strategic Planning Process

    NOTE: Although there are separate sections listed below for many of the major activities in strategic planning (for example, the sections “Developing a Mission”, “Developing a Vision”, etc.), this section “Various Overviews of Strategic Planning” also includes information about those activities as well. The reader might scan 8-10 of the articles to get a basic feel for strategic planning processes and the diversity of views on the processes. However, do not conclude that you can learn the most important aspects of strategic planning by reading some of the following articles — many of them are by authors who write about certain aspects of strategic planning, but not all aspects, so be sure to review resources in other subtopics of this overall topic of strategic planning.

    Samples of Plans

    Strategic plans come in a wide variety of formats, depending on the nature and needs of the organization.

    Boards and Strategic Planning

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    See a video about how to customize the planning process to suit your organization’s nature and needs. From the Consultants Development Institute.

    Preparation for Strategic Planning

    Guidelines to Keep Perspective During Planning

    Many managers spend most of their time “fighting fires” in the workplace. — their time is spent realizing and reacting to problems. For these managers — and probably for many of us — it can be very difficult to stand back and take a hard look at what we want to accomplish and how we want to accomplish it.

    We’re too busy doing what we think is making progress. However, one of the major differences between new and experienced managers is the skill to see the broad perspective, to take the long view on what we want to do and how we’re going to do it. One of the best ways to develop this skill is through ongoing experience in strategic planning. The following guidelines may help you to get the most out of your strategic planning experience.

    1. The real benefit of the strategic planning process is the process, not the plan document.

    2. There is no “perfect” plan. There’s doing your best at strategic thinking and implementation, and learning from what you’re doing to enhance what you’re doing the next time around.

    3. The strategic planning process is usually not an “aha!” experience. It’s like the management process itself — it’s a series of small moves that together keep the organization doing things right as it heads in the right direction.

    4. In planning, things usually aren’t as bad as you fear nor as good as you’d like.

    5. Start simple, but start!

    Useful Skills to Have When Strategic Planning

    It’s best to have a team of planners conduct strategic planning. Therefore, it’s important to have skills in developing and facilitating groups.

    Need Consultant or Facilitator to Help You With Planning?

    You may want to consider using a facilitator from outside of your organization if:
    1. Your organization has not conducted strategic planning before.
    2. For a variety of reasons, previous strategic planning was not deemed to be successful.
    3. There appears to be a wide range of ideas and/or concerns among organization members about strategic planning and current organizational issues to be addressed in the plan.
    4. There is no one in the organization who members feel has sufficient facilitation skills.
    5. No one in the organization feels committed to facilitating strategic planning for the organization.
    6. Leaders believe that an inside facilitator will either inhibit participation from others or will not have the opportunity to fully participate in planning themselves.
    7. Leaders want an objective voice, i.e., someone who is not likely to have strong predispositions about the organization’s strategic issues and ideas.

    (Also see Consultants (using).)

    Who Should Be Involved in Planning?

    Strategic planning should be conducted by a planning team. Consider the following guidelines when developing the team. (Note that reference to boards of directors is in regard to organizations that are corporations.)
    1. The chief executive and board chair should be included in the planning group and should drive the development and implementation of the plan.
    2. Establish clear guidelines for membership, for example, those directly involved in planning, those who will provide key information to the process, those who will review the plan document, those who will authorize the document, etc.
    3. A primary responsibility of a board of directors is strategic planning to effectively lead the organization. Therefore, insist that the board be strongly involved in planning, often including assigning a planning committee (often, the same as the executive committee).
    4. Ask if the board membership is representative of the organization’s clientele and community and if they are not, the organization may want to involve more representation in planning. If the board chair or chief executive balks at including more of the board members in planning, then the chief executive and/or board chair needs to seriously consider how serious the organization is about strategic planning!
    5. Always include in the group, at least one person who ultimately has authority to make strategic decisions, for example, to select which goals will be achieved and how.
    6. Ensure that as many stakeholders as possible are involved in the planning process.
    7. Involve at least those who are responsible for composing and implementing the plan.
    8. Involve someone to administrate the process, including arranging meetings, helping to record key information, helping with flipcharts, monitoring the status of prework, etc.
    9. Consider having the above administrator record the major steps in the planning process to help the organization conduct its own planning when the plan is next updated.

    Note the following considerations:
    10. Different types of members may be needed more at different times in the planning process, for example, strong board involvement in determining the organization’s strategic direction (mission, vision, and values), and then more staff involvement in determining the organization’s strategic analysis to determine its current issues and goals, and then primarily the staff to determine the strategies needed to address the issues and meet the goals.
    11. In general, where there’s any doubt about whether a certain someone should be involved in planning, it’s best to involve them. It’s worse to exclude someone useful than it is to have one or two extra people in planning — this is true in particular with organizations where board members often do not have extensive expertise about the organization and its products or services.
    12. Therefore, an organization may be better off to involve board and staff planners as much as possible in all phases of planning. Mixing the board and staff during planning helps board members understand the day-to-day issues of the organization, and helps the staff to understand the top-level issues of the organization.

    People to Invite to Your Non-Profit Strategic Planning Session

    How Many Planning Meetings Will We Need?

    Number and Duration of Planning Meetings

    1. New planners usually want to know how many meetings will be needed and what is needed for each meeting, i.e., they want a procedure for strategic planning. The number of meetings depends on whether the organization has done planning before, how many strategic issues and goals the organization faces, whether the culture of the organization prefers short or long meetings, and how much time the organization is willing to commit to strategic planning.
    2. Attempt to complete strategic planning in at most two to three months, or momentum will be lost and the planning effort may fall apart.

    Scheduling of Meetings

    1. Have each meeting at most two to three weeks apart when planning. It’s too easy to lose momentum otherwise.
    2. The most important factor in accomplishing complete attendance at planning meetings is evidence of strong support from executives. Therefore, ensure that executives a) issue clear direction that they strongly support and value the strategic planning process, and b) are visibly involved in the planning process.

    An Example Planning Process and Design of Meetings

    One example of a brief planning process is the following which includes four planning meetings and develops a top-level strategic plan which is later translated into a yearly operating plan by the staff:

    1. Planning starts with a half-day or all-day board retreat and includes introductions by the board chair and/or chief executive, their explanations of the organization’s benefits from strategic planning and the organization’s commitment to the planning process, the facilitator’s overview of the planning process, and the board chairs and/or chief executive’s explanation of who will be involved in the planning process. In the retreat, the organization may then begin the next step in planning, whether this be visiting their mission, vision, values, etc., or identifying current issues and goals for which strategies will need to be developed. (Goals are often reworded issues.) Planners are asked to think about strategies before the next meeting.

    2. The next meeting focuses on finalizing strategies to deal with each issue. Before the next meeting, a subcommittee is charged to draft the planning document, which includes an updated mission, vision, and values, and also finalized strategic issues, goals, and strategies. This document is distributed before the next meeting.

    3. In the next meeting, planners exchange feedback about the content and format of the planning document. Feedback is incorporated in the document and it is distributed before the next meeting.

    4. The next meeting does not require entire attention to the plan, e.g., the document is authorized by the board during a regular board meeting.

    5. Note that in the above example, various subcommittees might be charged to gather additional information and distribute it before the next planning meeting.

    6. Note, too, that the staff may take this document and establish a yearly operating plan which details what strategies will be implemented over the next year, who will do them, and by when.

    7. No matter how serious organizations are about strategic planning, they usually have strong concerns about being able to find time to attend frequent meetings. This concern can be addressed by ensuring meetings are well managed, having short meetings as needed rather than having fewer but longer meetings, and having realistic expectations from the planning project.

    Always First Do “Plan for a Plan”

    Too often, planners jump into the planning process by reviewing the organization’s mission or then establishing a vision and goals to achieve in the future. Instead, planners should always start by doing a “plan for a plan.” When planners skip this step, they too often produce a plan that is not relevant to the organization, unrealistic to apply, and inflexible to the culture and limitations of the organization.

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    Strategic Analyses — Analyzing External and Internal Environments

    See a video about how to do a strategic analysis. From the Consultants Development Institute.

    (Many planners prefer to start strategic planning by clarifying the mission, vision, and/or values of the organization. Other planners prefer to start by taking a wide look around the external environment of the organization and also the inside of the organization, and then clarifying/strategizing what the organization should do as a result of what the planners find. If you prefer to address the mission, vision, and/or values next, then skip to those sections later on below.)

    A frequent complaint about strategic plans is that they are merely “to-do” lists of what to accomplish over the next few years. Or, others complain that strategic planning never seems to come in handy when the organization is faced with having to make a difficult, major decision. Or, other complain that strategic planning really doesn’t help the organization face the future.

    These complaints arise because organizations fail to conduct a thorough strategic analysis as part of their strategic planning process. Instead, planners decide to plan only from what they know now. This makes the planning process much less strategic and a lot more guesswork. Strategic analysis is the heart of the strategic planning process and should not be ignored.

    Taking a Wide Look Around the Outside of the Organization to Identify Opportunities and Threats

    An external analysis usually includes looking at various trends, including political, economic, societal, technological, and ecological.

    Also, consider the needs and wants of stakeholders — do a stakeholder analysis.:

    Looking Around Inside of Organization to Identify Strengths and Weaknesses

    The following assessments might be useful in helping you to take a look around the inside of your organization — to assess the quality of all of its operations.

    Setting Strategic Direction

    Strategizing – Establishing Strategic Goals and Methods/Strategies to Achieve them

    Understanding Strategy and Strategic Thinking

    Also, consider

    The preceding topics in the Library can be useful when thinking of creative approaches to address priorities found in planning.

    One of the most important reasons that organizations do strategic planning is to ensure that they remain sustainable — that they not only survive but that they thrive well into the future. So it’s important to understand what makes an organization sustainable — it’s not just getting enough money. See Organizational Sustainability

    Do a SWOT Analysis of the Results of Looking Outside and Inside the Organization.

    Now that you’ve identified opportunities (O) and threats (T) and also strengths (S) and weaknesses (W), you could do a SWOT analysis in order to identify important priorities to address and how to address them, i.e., identify strategic goals and methods/strategies to achieve them. Note that the next section below, “Other Guidelines …”, also gives ideas about how to analyze the results of your strategic analyses.

    Here are some examples of SWOT analyses:

    Other Guidelines to Identify Strategic Goals and Methods/Strategies to Achieve Goals

    In addition to a SWOT analysis, or if you choose not to do one, consider the guidelines in the following articles. Each might give ideas for how to identify the best approaches to selecting the best goals and methods/strategies to achieve those goals.

    Consider Your Business Model (For-Profit and Nonprofit)

    Also, consider
    Business Development

    Evaluate Your Strategies

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    Developing/Updating a Mission Statement

    (As mentioned above, many planners prefer to start strategic planning by clarifying the mission, vision and/or values of the organization. Other planners prefer to start by taking a wide look around the external environment of the organization and also the inside, and then clarifying/strategizing what the organization should do as a result of what the planners find. If you prefer first to do those analyses, then see the Strategic Analysis section above.)

    Suggestion: Use your browser to do a search for “mission statements”. This likely will result in numerous links to a wide variety of organizations’ mission statements that you can review as samples of mission statements.

    Developing/Updating a Vision Statement

    Suggestion: Use your browser to do a search for “vision statements”. This likely will result in numerous links to a wide variety of organizations’ vision statements that you can review as samples of vision statements.

    Developing/Updating a Values Statement

    Suggestion: Use your browser to do a search for “values statements”. This likely will result in numerous links to a wide variety of organizations’ values statements that you can review as samples of values statements.

    Action Planning and Operational Planning (Objectives, Responsibilities, and Deadlines)

    See a video about how to do action planning. From the Consultants Development Institute.

    Strategic planning can be exhilarating when coming up with new visions and missions and values, talking about long-standing issues in the workplace, and coming up with new and exciting opportunities. But without careful action planning — and diligently ensuring actions are carried out — the plan ends up collecting dust on a shelf. Many organizations develop action plans for the first year of a multi-year strategic plan and refer to that action plan as an “operational plan.”

    Also, consider

    Writing and Communicating the Plan

    I’ve you’ve followed the guidelines, so far, throughout this Library topic, then writing your plan will be fairly straightforward. A frequent mistake at this point is not communicating the plan to enough people, including external stakeholders. The following link will be useful to you now.
    Basics of Writing and Communicating Your Plan

    Implementing, Monitoring, Evaluating and Deviating from the Plan — and Managing Change

    How Do We Ensure Implementation of Our New Plan?

    A frequent complaint about the strategic planning process is that it produces a document that ends up collecting dust on a shelf — the organization ignores the precious information depicted in the document.

    The following guidelines will help ensure that the plan is implemented. (Note that reference to boards of directors is in regard to organizations that are corporations.

    1. When conducting the planning process, involve the people who will be responsible for implementing the plan. Use a cross-functional team (representatives from each of the major organization’s products or services) to ensure the plan is realistic and collaborative.

    2. Ensure the plan is realistic. Continue asking planning participants “Is this realistic? Can you really do this?”

    3. Organize the overall strategic plan into smaller action plans, often including an action plan (or work plan) for each committee on the board.

    4. In the overall planning document, specify who is doing what and by when (action plans are often referenced in the implementation section of the overall strategic plan). Some organizations may elect to include the action plans in a separate document from the strategic plan, which would include only the mission, vision, values, key issues and goals, and strategies. This approach carries some risk that the board will lose focus on the action plans.

    5. In an implementation section in the plan, specify and clarify the plan’s implementation roles and responsibilities. Be sure to detail particularly the first 90 days of the implementation of the plan. Build in regular reviews of the status of the implementation of the plan.

    6. Translate the strategic plan’s actions into job descriptions and personnel performance reviews.

    7. Communicate the role of follow-ups to the plan. If people know the action plans will be regularly reviewed, implementers tend to do their jobs before they’re checked on.

    8. Be sure to document and distribute the plan, including inviting review input from all.

    9. Be sure that one internal person has the ultimate responsibility that the plan is enacted in a timely fashion.

    10. The chief executive’s support of the plan is a major driver of the plan’s implementation. Integrate the plan’s goals and objectives into the chief executive’s performance reviews.

    11. Place huge emphasis on feedback to the board’s executive committee from the planning participants.

    Consider all or some of the following to ensure the plan is implemented.

    12. Have designated rotating “checkers” to verify, e.g., every quarter, if each implementer completed their assigned tasks.

    13. Have pairs of people be responsible for tasks. Have each partner commit to helping the other to finish the other’s tasks on time.

    Monitoring Implementation, Evaluating Implementation — and Deviating from Plan, If Necessary

    As stated several times throughout this library topic (and in materials linked from it), too many strategic plans end up collecting dust on a shelf. Monitoring and evaluating the planning activities and status of implementation of the plan is — for many organizations — as important as identifying strategic issues and goals. One advantage of monitoring and evaluation is to ensure that the organization is following the direction established during strategic planning. That advantage is obvious.

    However, another major advantage is that the management can learn a great deal about the organization and how to manage it by continuing to monitor and evaluate the planning activities and the status of the implementation of the plan. Note that plans are guidelines. They aren’t rules.

    Changing the Plan As Necessary During Implementation

    It’s OK to deviate from a plan. But planners should understand the reason for the deviations and update the plan to reflect the new direction.
    How to Change Your Strategic Plan

    The following links are to major topics in the Library that are all about guiding change in your organization:

    Guidelines to Manage Organizational Change While Implementing the Plan

    As you are implementing your Plan, you will likely be making significant changes within your organization, whether changes to strategy, structure, or policies. These should be done carefully. The following links are to resources to help you accomplish successful change.

    Handy Tool to Guarantee Plans Are Implemented

    It’s one thing to develop a plan. It’s another to actually implement the plan. Far too many plans sit untouched on shelves. A low-cost, straightforward approach to sharing ongoing support and accountabilities to implement a plan is to use peer coaching groups. That approach is brought to you by Authenticity Consulting, LLC — the same company that brings you this Free Management Library.
    Using Peer Coaching Groups(sm) to Ensure Accountability and Action


    Also, consider

    Learn More in the Library’s Blogs Related to Strategic Planning

    In addition to the articles on this current page, see the following blogs which have posts related to Strategic Planning. Scan down the blog’s page to see various posts. Also, see the section “Recent Blog Posts” in the sidebar of the blog or click on “Next” near the bottom of a post in the blog.

    For the Category of Strategic Planning:

    To round out your knowledge of this Library topic, you may want to review some related topics, available from the link below. Each of the related topics includes free, online resources.

    Also, scan the Recommended Books listed below. They have been selected for their relevance and highly practical nature.