The Strategic Nonprofit Eps6 Key Elements of an Effective Strategic Planning Session with Joanna Barclay

In this episode we are joined with Joanna Barclay, an authority on change management, leadership development and organizational development, who has over 20 years experience working as a volunteer leader with several not-for-profit organizations and has been certified by the Barrett Values Centre and International Association of Facilitators. We going to discuss the key elements on how to have an effective strategic planning session.

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Visit Joanna Barclay’s Linkedin profile to find out more about Joanna Barclay or you could contact Trista McIver here.


My name is Trista McIver, and I am the program advisor here at AMC NPO Solutions, as well as the host of our podcast, the Strategic Nonprofit.

As you might know, we do a lot of live webinars for chill training for the not-for-profit industry and have an e-learning portal to help MPOs train their boards and staff. we have a brand new governance, course coming out next month and that will be paired with a series of live webinars. So if you’re signing up for a newsletter, you’ll get that information once it’s announced.

So for today, I’m excited to have with us Joanna Barkley, who was one of our governance trainers and strategic planning facilitators. So to get us started, Joanna. Hi there. Hi, can you tell us a bit about yourself? Including your experience with nonprofits and where you’re based. Okay. I am based in Ottawa, Canada, and, I started my career about 35 years ago in IT industry.

And, I worked for some of the major, it vendors. So digital equipment, Oracle corporation. And then in 2000, I went to my own personal professional transformation because I realized I really enjoyed working with people far more than hardware and software. since then, I’ve been doing strategic planning and a lot of it, because this is, auto is the federal Capitol and all, every government department does needs to do strategic planning.

So there’s been a lot of work there. plus I do a lot of work for, volunteer organizations. and certainly strategic planning is something that, I started doing immediately when I became a professional facilitator. And, so I, I absolutely love it. I love it because of all the wonderful benefits that it provides an organization and especially the people in the organization.

So why is strategic planning so important? Why is it important? there’s a quote, but Alan Laken that I really like is called planning, brings the future into the present. So you can do something about it. So there’s three main things about strategic planning that’s very important.

The first one is the people and what it does to, when you bring a group of diverse people together. It creates commitment and excitement and inspiration because people’s voices are being heard. And, then the second thing that’s really important about it is process. So what is the process that, that I use and, I’d like to promote a colleague of mine, his book, transformational strategy.

He’s an ICA associates and that’s the, the methodology that I use is called the technology of participate patient. So this process brings together a diverse group of people. Key stakeholders really for the organization. And when you bring those people together to, to understand what are their hopes and dreams, what’s the meaning and purpose of it, the organization, what are some obstacles that could potentially block, a strategy from happening?

And then what are the, what are the strategies and action planning the process when it’s participatory, I find I’m incredibly empowering because it enables people to bring their full potential into the workplace. And then the third thing is the product. What you actually create is something incredibly powerful for an organization.

And so that’s why I do those. That’s why I think it’s incredibly important for an organization to do strategic planning, to really know how, what is their future and how are they going to get there. Absolutely. I completely agree with you there. So if you’re thinking about a strategic planning session, how often would you suggest, an organization, carry out a strategic planning session?

Strategic planning session probably should be done once every three years. Three to five years, depending on what your industry is and how much change happens. typically an organization’s mission and purpose won’t change. those are the products and services that you offer, and these are the people that you are going to be attracting, however, your vision, what do you actually want to see in place three years down the road? That changes on a regular basis, right? So that’s typically why I suggest doing it every three years. Because of the nature of the world, for example, the mic who would have guessed that’s what happened. But yeah, we need to be planning now they need to be, thinking about what is our future and how do you engage people from across the organization?

How do you increase that commitment and motivation for your plans? It’s all very important. people. People, especially in today’s, because of what’s happening today, people want to in the organization want to know, what’s our direction. what’s our commitment and what’s our mission purpose.

Is that changing, right? yeah, there’s a lot of really good reasons. Absolutely. So doing, doing a full planning session, you’d probably do every three years, but your strategic plan really should be visited every six months to 12 months because that’s when the action plan needs to be reviewed.

It’s not something you’d be once and put on a shelf and it collects dust. it’s really playing an active inactive document and active, yeah. Achieve through the organization. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. when would be the best time you would say they to, conduct the strategic planning?

Typically it’s, if there is a three year cycle, it depends on boards. Like some, sometimes the board governance dictates when as strategic planning or how often it needs to be done. but sometimes it’s typically at the beginning or in a transition phase when new board members are coming on.

So it really depends on what’s happening within the organization and the yearly cycle, So typically people do at the beginning of a year. If, especially if they’re, in sales and they have to, come up with new plans and new strategies for what’s happening in their organization.

Yeah, exactly. Okay. Thank you. Planning processes is when you need to get together with a group of people and think strategically about what’s going to happen. With that company, if, if you mission a mandate is what your purpose is, then that’s clear, right? this is why we exist. These are our services and these are our clients that we have.

You know that we are serving now your organization, where do you want to be in three years time? So that’s creating, what are your hopes and dreams as an organization or as a leader, as the leadership team, what do you want to see in place? What are you working towards? what are your goals?

And that would be then creating a practical vision. That’s three years out. Once you’ve got that practical vision. How are you going to get there? in the process that I use, the second sort of phase of the workshop or the planning process would be okay if we have this wonderful vision out here, what are all the things that could potentially block us from achieving that vision?

Because we’d have it today, otherwise, So you’ve got this vision. Here, but then you’ve got these obstacles, these blocks. And so what you need to do is to talk about what are those obstacles and the process that I use is you identify the block, what it’s blocking in the vision and how it blocks. And when you’ve identified.

That obstacle correctly, it points directly to a strategy. So then, what’s the right action to achieve your vision. So that obstacle, instead of becoming a door, becomes a doorway. And so you’ve got your strategies. These are the things that we need to do over the next three years. when you’re putting an action plan together, which is.

I think probably one of the most important things in the strategic planning process is to create an action plan. Pick three of strategies, not all nine or 10, but three or four that you’re going to start working on in the next six to 12 months. And so then you have that action plan that has measurable accomplishments.

It’s got, who’s going to do, what’s got resources. Identified has got a timeline of activities. And and the way that we do this process, it’s very visual, right. And it’s very participatory and we, we put these lines of activities up on the wall and people can actually see, okay, w the work that you do, how it could integrate and serve the work that I’m doing.

So it’s, because of. Because it’s very visual and participatory, you can actually be much more effective in achieving your strategies because you’re managing the resources effectively. it’s just a wonderful way of getting that strategic thinking together with a group of people.

And the reason why I say, your key stakeholders are incredibly important because. You want a diverse range of ideas coming to the table? that’s how you get innovative thinking happening, Is the most diverse possible. And, for example, I quite often do strategic planning sessions with about 25 people and I get them to think about, okay, who needs to read this plan and be able to see themselves in it.

So I have people from different parts of the organization. You wouldn’t have everybody, but just so that the voices are representative and so that when people pick up the plan and they read it, they can feel like they have been there. Yeah. And so your stakeholders are a really important part, identifying who impacts you and who do you impact?

And having their voice in the process can be incredibly powerful for the whole organization. so if you were to think about what you would suggest a board to do before a strategic planning session, during and after, so you touched on it a little bit about, your incorporation and that, and looking at the vision and mission.

So what else would you suggest. I think there’s a lot of preparation that goes into a strategic planning process, analyzing the external environment, analyzing the internal environment, what is your history in terms of, what have you achieved up to this point in time? What are the reasons for doing it? What are your expectations? What’s the scope? How much participation do you need to have? I have, what are other things, who are the stakeholders need to contact? If you’ve got competitors? Or collaborators, so you really want to think ahead of time to plan, to make sure the right people around the table.

you also want to identify what are your guiding principles or values that you want to incorporate into the planning process. And then, then it also. You would, once you actually, so that’s the, before the juring part of the process, we, we revisit the mission and mandate, so your purpose, we create a practical vision, right?

what’s actually going to be in your future. What are you looking to achieve? We identify the obstacles and the blocks that might prevent them. And then we identify the strategies or strategic approaches and then creating an action plan. So that’s the, so during, and then the after effects.

Bringing together, those groups of people, the implementation structures, in terms of how are you going to achieve those visions? in my book that I wrote, I had a, I did a strategic plan for an organization and what really, what made them successful was, culture. They recognize that in order to achieve the vision that they had, that they were going to have to transfer from their culture in terms of how they work together.

So sometimes that can be incredibly important as well, because if you’re asking for people to change their behaviors, In any way as part of your plan or the action plan and then changing people, those behaviors means you’re going to be changing the culture. So that’s why I do this work hand in hand, the strategic planning, followed by culture transformation so that they can really understand how are people going to need to transform themselves?

Because like I said, this book is called transformational strategy because it really does. This process really does transform an organization and the people in it, which is what you’re looking for. Excellent. Yeah. Kahleel, made a comment, about the, strategic planning sessions. And he said, give that it happens infrequently.

We don’t have a set time of year, which is an understandable cause I talk with many organizations where, they do it typically after their AGM. once they have their new board in, then they would do it a couple of months after that. Or, it’s on a yearly basis, not based on AGM, maybe based on yeah, in a financial situation, maybe around grants, cause you base a lot of organizations base their funding on grants and what they’re going to be getting, for the year and that type of thing.

Yeah. Thanks for sharing that. All right. let’s see. so with them, if you were to think about, like best practices as, and frameworks, and models that boards can use, what would you say that, that I think the model that I use is the technology of participation, right?

A fabulous model for, helping people think strategically and also in a very disciplined manner so that everybody can focus on what it is. that you’re working on. I think what’s also very simple who are the stakeholders, so who needs to be around the table and trying to get to as many stakeholders as possible. Quite often, people leaders have to do some soul searching in terms of. Who they’re inviting around the table, but it can be, make a huge difference to the content. especially the wording of questions when you have the right people.

And I quite often, if I have kids boards that I’m working with, I quite often, invite them to include the staff members. To participate because they’re the ones implementing the strategies going forward and then hearing from different community groups. Or, bringing in the different levels within the organization.

So I think they called her is a biggie. And then also, the reason why I love the technology of participation is because the people that you invite into the planning process, they become a team. They become your ambassadors of socializing the results of the planning process. Which is huge. And in this, because it’s so participant Tori people are really motivated at the end to be able to take charge, which of these ideas and these strategies and approaches and the action plan to do the work.

So you’re building an incredible sense of motivation into the process, which I think, and that’s why. That’s one of the reasons why I became a facilitator was to give people a voice in the process of change. Because when you do, it’s amazing what you unleash energy that you can unleash. when people are able to bring their best selves, into the workplace and be able to share their creative ideas, they’re able to reach their potential and then the teams can reach their potential and the organization can meet their potential.

And that’s where the that’s how the transformation happens is by giving people a voice. Oh, it’s so socialization of the idea, it is getting the right people around the table. Very powerful. And then making sure you have an action plan that is monitored and managed is very important. Cause so many strategic plans, nothing ever happens to them.

And the same things come back year after year. Why? Because they don’t have an effective action plan. And those plans just sit on a shelf and collect us and that’s. That’s not what you want. Yeah. And along with the action plan is actioning. your items that you want to achieve? Two people, there’s gotta be resources, identified roles.

Responsibility. Yeah. Yeah. you gotta make it come alive. Yeah, absolutely. So what do you think is the benefit of having, I think we chatted about this a little bit before, but the, having an external facilitator. Oh, I remember we talked about like how children, like my son, I was an early childhood educator for 20 years, but he won’t let me teach him how to ride a bike, but then, my friends can do it.

I ha I’ve heard this sort of thing from some other organizations, but yeah, I think it’s, I think it’s very beneficial to have an external facilitator. Who is really experienced in using methods of strategic planning, especially participatory methods? also, an external facilitator can ask the tough questions and then whatever comes up, stick to that facilitator. And then they leave and they, and we can ask the tough questions that need to be asked, which is, which can be very helpful. So I think it’s really our knowledge and experience. of the process because that’s. That’s my expertise is a process. I manage the process. I don’t need to know anything about the content. In fact, the pro the methodology that we use, people can actually be just drawing on cards.

And I don’t even know the language, no, the language. And I can facilitate a planning process. So that’s how important process can be managing the process. So I manage the human dynamics and the people in the session are responsible for the content. and what we do is we build consensus, right?

We find out where is the consensus in the group? And by consensus, I don’t mean a hundred percent agreement. that people can accept the ideas that are being shared and they can commit to them because they, if they have any concerns, those concerns have been addressed. So that’s another important part of it as well.

Perfect. what are the most common. Mistakes boards, could make with strategic planning it a little bit, like having the right stakeholders, not having the right stakeholders at the table. That’s a good thing. Yeah. Not having real engagement on the board. I did a strategic planning session once for a leader and.

He was having a real hard time with engagement, and his problem was he was actually too good. he would show up at meetings and, and all, basically all the board needed to do was sign on the dotted line and therefore, they weren’t. Very engaged. and in one day he was at a conference center and he walked past a room and he saw, a facilitator facilitating this room, filled with, about 25 people, flip charts all over the wall.

He and afterwards he went back to that person and said, what’s happening in this room because I want this same level of engagement with my board. And, she shared, about the technology participation and when he came back to Ottawa, he found me and looked me up and I’m sure enough.

I put together a one day session for him. And before that, before the session, you said you do any of know, I don’t think it’s going to work. I know these people so well. And I said, okay, let’s just see. And sure enough, identify the opportunities and challenges to get key focus areas. We had an action plan.

Key focus each key focus area. and we had, the four, four values identified that they were going to be working in, using, and he was blown away. Very happy of course. But, so sometimes if ever had a facilitator, you’re not quite sure what they can do, but, if they’re experienced and they’re certified because there is certification, international certification for facilitators.

And I happened to have both certifications that are available. it does make a difference. No, it doesn’t make a difference. And I’m so glad that we have you on our team. Thank you. so does the facilitator need to be an expert in the area, that the organization represents? No. No. As I mentioned before, we are process Queens and Kings.

We manage. You manage the human dynamics and we work with the clients to make sure that we have the right focus question before each workshop. So we, they know what the process is that we’re going to be going through. And we make sure that we share that with the leaders. and our job is to really, to do the preparation ahead of time, as I said, doing the environmental scan with key stakeholders beforehand. I’m able to develop a rapport with different members of the board or the leadership team. So I don’t walk into that cold. I help, understand what are the reasons, why are we doing this? and so that preparation is very important. it gives me a taste what the content’s going to be about, but you know what, I’m not the one I’m answering the questions.

I’m the one asking the questions. So that’s why the preparation is so important. I make sure that I have the right focus questions, and then I’m managing the answering. I’m managing the process of it to make sure that everybody’s voices and ideas are heard. So that’s my role. And so it’s so no, I don’t need to be a scientist if I’m working with scientists or an engineer from working with engineers.

Not at all. Exactly. Yeah. Good question. Very good question. Because many people think you do need to be a content expert and the reality is you don’t. and I have had that question numerous times, executive directors that I’ve talked with about strategic planning and governance.

so I just wanted to put that out there and get a, get an answer for that. So a very good question. So how can, how can the board of directors have the best chance of success? Best chance of success. I, the process that we use is done over. Two and a half days. So quite often we do it over a weekend.

Cause people work during the week, so it might start Friday night go right through till Sunday. So yeah. giving it a condensed time is good. there’s a couple of nights to sleep on your ideas and you can get away with a consolidated, Product. I think it’s very important to have a report, to create a nice, strategic planning report.

That’s easily read by people, and use that as a tool to socialize your ideas. And, if you want to socialize and you want to get input. From, the different stakeholders across, didn’t necessarily attend, there’s different groups then certainly socialize the plan and let people see what the ideas are.

And if you’re open to input and feedback, why not? Cause that whole planning process is really to give people an idea of where is the organization going and why is it going there? what people are looking for today, what staff are looking for is they want meaning and purpose. They want direction and they want communication.

So the more that you can offer that to people, the more empowered and engaged they will feel. sometimes things don’t go according to plan, but if you know what the bigger picture is, then you’re eating, it’s easier for you to adapt what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

If you know where you’re going and why you’re going there. So always, if change is coming, people want to know why, give them the data. Give them the data as to why you’re making these changes also understand what their emotional fears might be. And then make sure that you’re building trust along the way.

Especially if major changes are being asked for. communication people really appreciate it. Big time. Absolutely. Absolutely. my question, my next question is, so what can boards do from the planning stage to the execution stage? So what do they do afterwards? Yeah. Yeah.

Okay. you need to, once you have it, the action plan, You’re going to need to create those structures, those implementation structures. So who’s going to be in those working groups because the people who attended the session might be the working group leader. But then, so that socialization process, you need to make sure you’re building in the team who is going to be implementing it.

So that’s very important. And then following through every six months on evaluating your progress, how are we doing meeting the milestones that we had identified? And it, yeah, if you are having challenges, then certainly raise them, right? Because the team supports each other, a team, that’s what teamwork is all about and collaboration is all about.

And so the more communication that you have between the people, the better they’ll get to know each other, they’ll support each other. Yeah. So that’s really important. It is following up on it and making sure that you’ve got, ownership and accountability for the things that you’ve got in the plan.

Great. Thanks so much, Joanna. You’re welcome. My question is given the new normal with COVID. Although our missions and values remain the same, is there value to strap plans during rapid change crisis? And if so, should the timelines be six, nine, 12 months? and then what are the pros and cons for that? certainly you need to revisit what are your strategies and how are you implementing them?

Because, if things have changed because of COVID, then you need to reassess. what are your strategies? What are your action plans to achieving them? certainly six, nine, 12 months, it really depends on, what are your goals? what are those actions, items that you’ve got and how are how are you changing the way that your organization is working together?

is there a sort of a new support or no new values that you now need to think about? Yeah. That you didn’t have to think about before COVID mental health can be a big one. So how are you? Are you, how are you supporting people during this time? Especially people who might be working at home, what are the, what, what are the impacts for them?

as part of your planning process, there might be new obstacles now that you need to address. And really to find out what’s impacting people and what’s the kind of support that’s required in order for them to be able to achieve the outcomes or the objectives that you’ve set for them.

Because you don’t see people. Eight hours a day anymore. They’re working from home. So it might be more objective or results oriented. so I think really checking in with people and finding out how they’re doing and supporting people as much as possible. The Barrett value centered recently that a COVID-19 values assessment.

In other words, what’s changed in the workplace from before COVID to now in the middle of it. And, one of the big changes that has taken places, there’s a, been a shift from a focus on performance to a focus on people. a shift in focus on control to a focus on adaptability.

How is this changing people’s management style and leadership styles? do these leaders need training and support in terms of how to become facilitative leaders, how to, engage people’s participation because you’re now working through a different medium. So I think, I think it’s really wise for an organization to revisit.

It’s planning process and its plans and its strategies, especially in the light of the new working conditions and the new organizational norms, the values that have been, were we literally, within 12 weeks we have gone through what would normally have taken organizations five years. Of transformation.

Organizations can become digital overnight, right? So that’s bound to have an impact on people. yeah. It’s not a wonder, people are feeling that the way they are, It’s a. We’ve gone through a massive change process. And I think being kind to each other, which we are I do in, I, I am, I’m observing that in terms of people are driving differently and people are saying hello, much differently.

It’s actually saying hello. People are looking at each other now, but really saying hello, when you go for walks, it is, the world has changed overnight. And. Yeah. So I think our plans have to take that into consideration. Thank you. How long should a strategic planning session take one day, two days or an afternoon?

Okay. the technology participation process that I use takes two and a half days. I go through five different workshops, about two hours each. I’ve done one day strategic planning sessions that have been very effective, half a day. No, haven’t I haven’t done one in half a day. There’s just so much talk about really that’s important.

When you think about you need to revisit your mission, vision need to create a practical vision. You need to identify what might potentially block you from achieving that vision. You have to come up with strategies, then an action plan. Can you do that in three hours? it’s like the reason why I do it over two and a half days is, each workshop, it can be about two to two and a half hours, depending if you’re doing it in person or online.

I tend to do them shorter online because online is. Catch, keeping people’s attention for long periods of time can be challenging. So that’s why I’ve reduced the length of time on workshops. But, when you give people time to have dialogue, you get deeper, more meaningful results.

So it’s not to say I couldn’t do something in half in half a day, but it’s just the quality of the results compared to two and a half days, there is definitely going to be a difference. And, and. Depends what your needs are. So that’s a, and how much time you’re you’re able to give the process.

The other one, how soon after a CEO comes on board should a new strategic plan process. Start. that’s CEO coming on board will probably have his or her own ideas in terms of when they want it to happen. I would say certainly it normally happens within the first quarter. But you, so that CEO needs to have some time to build rapport with his leadership team so you have to give, you have to give the CEO that time for them to, build those relationships. And get to know, there their leadership team before jumping into a planning process. But I would say normally within the first three months, something will be done. It’s you get a new president and they always the first hundred days, what are they going to do with it?

And I think it’s the same kind of thing with the CEO. Yeah. I like that. I like that. What you said there, Joanna about building the rapport. I think that’s probably the most important thing for the CEO to do in the area. Yeah. Yeah. Very important to build those relationships. First, I find if you don’t build the relationships first, you’re going to have trouble.

In other words, your ship team. and it also depends what culture you’re in. but certainly in today’s day and age, people come first and so building those relationships will sustain the, the planning process going forward, and I think that’s one of the. Very important parts of a strategic planning process is the relationships that you build with each other is as you go through these workshops and have these talks dialogue sessions, you’re getting to know who your colleagues are and how they think, and their ideas or, come up and it’s, so it’s the conversations that you have and the dialogues that you have that really helped to, To get to know each other and how they think, and that can sustain you, especially when problems come up when you’re implementing things, because nothing ever goes perfectly, You’re always going to have some challenges. And so the higher, the quality of the relationships that you have, the better they will support you in your times of difficulty. So that’s another important part of the planning process is getting to know each is the action plans, strategic or tactical. how are the CEO and senior management team involved?

Oh, they’re going to be responsible for whatever is happening and that action plan, the action plan. Typically what it does is it takes, let’s say you come up with a seven to nine different strategies on how you’re going to achieve your, your vision. you’re not going to. Work on all seven at the same time.

So typically what we do is we’ll pick three or four and we’ll do an action plan. I see. Okay. For that strategy, what do we want to achieve? Let’s say it’s a 12 month action plan. We want to identify, okay. If we’re going to work on this strategy for a year, what’s the measurable accomplishment. and when I think about a measurable accomplishment, I think of the smart one.

So it has to be specific. It has to be measurable. It has to be attainable. It has to be realistic and it has to be timely. So what’s that catalytic, measurable accomplishment that you want to work towards, that you will be able to measure at the end of the year. And yeah, it is tactical.

It is operational, but it’s strategic at the same time because it’s helping you move towards your mission or your vision that you have set for the organization. Great. Thank you. I’m interested in your insights into the interface between doing a strategic plan. And a strategic focus, which would be the driving force of a board.

And part of every board meeting doing a strategic plan for me is embedded in every board meeting since strategic. Interactions come up throughout the year. My board agenda is structured with strategic agenda items first and operational items afterwards. Then, then I any need board perspectives.

What are your thoughts? Agreed. I think that’s perfect. a lot of boards tend to get in the weeds, They tend to be working boards, but if you really are a board, that’s strategic and that’s your role then? that’s great. That’s exactly the way it should work. So congratulations, but a lot of boards do that as a quick answer too, but that’s perfect.

Thank you so much for joining us and if you need any help with strategic planning, governance, bylaw reviews, or any, running effective board meetings, please reach out to me. At my email, which is [email protected] And thank you.

About Tom (TJ) Abbott

Tom (TJ) Abbott, CSP is the Managing Director of AMC NPO Solutions and an authority on Governance. He has over 25 years experience as CEO, President and board director of several not-for-profit organizations. Tom has also spoken in over 20 countries.