Strategic planning means different things to different people. There are some very specific ways of doing it and some very specific formats. Yet to simplify things, I figure that if you have something in writing with these three qualities, you can call it a strategic plan.
First, it’s a long term plan. A strategic plan is more than just the annual work plan, or the annual budget. It’s usually longer than a year. Two years, ten years, twenty years, it’s a longer range plan than is made on a day-to-day, month-to-month basis.
Secondly, it’s comprehensive. It covers all the different aspects of the organization. Not just the programs that you’re going to run, but also the administrative institutional stuff like board development if you have a board, staff development if you have staff. It also includes the financial plans for capital improvements. If you’re a non-profit, it includes the plans for fundraising, where you’re going to get the money, how you’re going to spend the money. How detailed you want to get is a matter of choice — goals, objectives, strategies, performance metrics, etc. — but it’s only strategic if it says at least a little bit about everything that the organization (or division of an organization) does.
Third, it’s not really a strategic plan if the leaders of the organization aren’t bought into it. It’s not okay for someone two levels down to make a plan for the whole organization and call it a strategic plan. A strategic plan needs to be embraced by whoever is in charge of making it happen.
Strategic planning is an opportunity to rise above the day-to-day operations and decision-making and look further to the future. It’s is a chance to take stock of big trends affecting your organization. It’s a chance to evaluate your strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities; and make plans accordingly.
Many organizations invest in strategic planning every few years since the idea is to not wait for a crisis or a big decision that suddenly needs to be made. Even absent an apparent crisis or big decision to be made, taking stock of your situation and your surroundings makes you able to better anticipate the next big decision and prevent the next big crisis.
Strategic plans are useful for many reasons. Groups use their strategic plan to attract employees, investors, and donors. The plan gives potential partners of all types a good picture of where their organization is headed. Groups use the strategic plan as a way to hold key officers/employees responsible and accountable. It’s an excellent tool for both accountability and for celebrating progress. Groups use the strategic planning process to work through and make hard decisions. Also the process is very useful for gathering input from stakeholders and taking a good look at the environment in which you exist. For many, actually, it’s the process that’s most valuable.
Whatever your reason for strategic planning, it’s important to spend the right amount of effort; that is, in right proportion to the amount of benefit you’re going to get from it. Strategic planning has a bad reputation in the world because so often strategic planning efforts are not right-sized. The biggest complaint is that strategic planning is too involved and requires too much effort in proportion to any good that might come from it. Another complaint is that planning is way too vague or based on too many assumptions, to the point of being useless.
To maximize reward for your participants, know at the outset why you want a plan and don’t push people through a process that’s too complicated or too simple to get what you need.