The famous Robert Burns quote says “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” and while it’s true that rigid planning often fails to cope with the unexpected, good strategic planing can actually lead an organization successfully through the challenges of its time.
So what is strategic planning? It is an essential process in guiding organizations to achieve their mission by identifying strengths and weaknesses, strategic issues for the organization, and plans for acting on and evaluating progress on these issues. This planning helps to clarify the mission and identifies fundamental issues. If effectively implemented with the aid of organizational leaders, the process can candidly confront critical issues, and create detailed roadmaps for success (Bryson).
Most resources list ten steps to this process. It has been adapted for all kinds of environments like entrepreneurs and foundations, and the order of the steps often changes to meet the needs of the group. Here’s my version, synthesized from Bryson and United Way:
- Align Stakeholders: Begin conversations with relevant stakeholders and agree on a strategic planning process. There are a lot of different versions; pick one that will suit your organization best.
- Mission, Internal Assessment, External Assessment: Take stock of your current environment and goals. Start with the internal. What is the mission of your organization? How do your operations function? What are the organizational mandates you must work within? Then, think about the external environment in which your organization exists. Be careful at this stage to simply describe what is, we’re not critiquing yet!
- (Vision: Taking into account the information you outlined in step one, identify the long-term vision for the organization. Where do you hope to be in five, ten, twenty years? If you are a brand new organization it’s often overwhelming to think about long term goals so early in the process, skip it for now and come back when you have more organizational capacity to consider the vision.)
- Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats or SWOTS: In this stage we begin to critique the information that we’ve gathered. Strengths and weaknesses assess internal pros and cons of the organization, while opportunities and threats highlight the external pressures that may require change from your organization.
- Strategic Issues: From your SWOTS, identify issues that are urgent and are likely to have a large impact on your organization. These are strategic issues, defined as: “Internal or external development[s] which could impact the organization’s performance, to which the organization must respond in an orderly fashion and over which the organization may reasonably expect to exert some influence” (United Way p. 3). Draft statements of strategic issues that include a definition, list of factors that make it fundamental, and outcomes that would result from different scenarios involving the issue.
- Formulate Strategies and Plans: What do you need to do and how will you do it?
- Do it: Development an effective implementation process and get formal approval for the plan. Then get to work.
- Evaluate!!! The successful strategic plan requires regular reassessment of the organization’s success at addressing the strategic issues you’ve worked hard to identify.
And when that’s all done, start thinking about what will happen when the current strategic plan comes to an end (Tregoe). Strategic planning is an ongoing process that needs to be revisited frequently to keep programming relevant within its environment (Bryson). While Burns was a skeptic in 1785 when he coined a popular proverb about planning, I think he might have whistled a different tune if he knew about the strategic planning process today.
Bryson, John M. 2010. “Strategic Planning and the Strategy Change Cycle” in The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management. Renz, David O, ed. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco, CA.
Tregoe, Benjamin. 1983. “The Challenges of Strategic Management.” In Top Management Strategy. Benjamin B. Tregoe and John W. Zimmerman. New York: Simon and Schuster.
United Way of Dane County. No date. “Strategic Planning Process.”