After delivering a strategic planning session for a not-for-profit association in Merrit, British Columbia, I was inspired to record this Facebook Live video on elements of Strategic Planning. What to do before, during and after a Strategic Planning Session. Hope you enjoy it!

What To Do Before a Strategic Planning Session

Get all key stakeholders involved

When scheduling a strategic planning session, you’ve got to get all of the key stakeholders involved. Find out who needs to be at this meeting.

Make sure you get the entire board there. If you have volunteers on some committees that you think would be useful to be there as well, be sure to include them. Be sure to include some key staff members, especially your executive director and if you have some senior managers whose input would be useful, be sure to include them in the strategic planning session as well.

A word of caution though. You don’t want to have too many people in the room. The more people you have, the more ideas you’ll have which can be good and bad. With more people there will be more discussion. Typically for every person you add to a meeting, you add about 30 minutes to an hour of discussion. So keep that in mind when you’re planning who will be at your next session.

Try to limit your group size to anywhere between 8 to 15 people. This is a nice and manageable size.

Send questions to review in advance

Get everyone working in advance of the planning session by sending them questions that they can review and contemplate. Here are three sample questions that you can ask and these are three questions that I asked this particular board at Scw’exmx Child & Family Services Society.

1. Why is this the right time for a planning session?

What’s going on right now that makes having this session important or critical? Is it a new board? Do you have a new president? Have you just hired a new executive director? Is there a change in government either the federal or the provincial level? What’s happening right now that makes this strategic planning session important?

2. What do you hope to accomplish during this session?

It’s important to find out what everyone wants to get out of the session and to manage expectations. For example, you might have some people coming to the session, wanting clarity on direction. You may have others that come to the planning session with a specific agenda. Maybe they want to embark on a new initiative or they want to talk about new programs or policies.

In specific, you know specifically so it would be really useful to the facilitator and for everybody involved to have a sense in advance. What are some of the big picture ideas that we’re going to talk about? So, number one is why is this a good time for this planning session? Number two, what do you hope to achieve or accomplish during the session?

Question number three that you want to ask the board in advance is how will you know this session was successful? How will you know that this session wasn’t a complete waste of your time? How will you know that there was value in the planning session? So you might find some overlap and answers between question number two and question number three or you might find something completely different. So, with this group that I worked with the last two days. Overwhelmingly, they felt that they knew that the session would be successful if they left with clear action items and goals that they could start working on tomorrow. That was so important for them to not just come up with these pie-in-the-sky ideas that just sit there and never get touched. So, they wanted to leave clearly with tangible goals and action items that they could start working on tomorrow. So that was really awesome and that was an objective that I wrote on the flip chart and just kept it in the front of the room for all to see for the two days. So, there would be no doubt about what we’re working towards and how we will define success at the end of the session. So, those were some elements on what to do before the planning session.

Recap

Tip 1: Be sure to include some key staff members, especially your executive director, key stakeholders and managers. However, limit it between 8 to 15 people.

Tip 2: Get them to work in advance before the session by asking this question:

  • Why is this the right time for a planning session?
  • What do you hope to accomplish during this session?
  • How will you know this session was successful?

What To Do During Strategic Planning Session

So, now I’m going to share with you, what you need to do during the planning session. So, during the session. It’s important to, in my opinion, kind of set the context for the session and really get everybody up to speed on who we are as an organisation. So what we did yesterday first thing was we pulled out the old vision statement. So, we went through the bylaws in the constitution and revisited the vision statement. For some of the directors, it was the first time they had seen the vision statement so that is surprising to some and not surprising to others. So, the first thing you want to do is go through the vision statement and make sure that number one, everybody understands the vision number two, make sure everybody agrees with the vision and as it turned out yesterday, not everybody agreed on the vision. They did in principle, big picture but there were some specific words that they felt were either redundant unnecessary or incorrect. So, we spent some time tweaking modifying and improving the vision statement and man, the room was excited, they were pumped. It was the first time, they had gone through this exercise and in fact, one of the directors said we need to do this every year so I don’t know if we have to do it every year but every two to three years sure maybe. Every year but I’m not sure that’s a bit ambitious but definitely the spirit was, we need to revisit this and make sure that we’re all on the same page and moving in the same direction and the right direction. So, we went through the vision statement and came up with something that everybody believed in that set the tone.

Here’s a little tip about vision. A lot of people get vision and mission confused. The vision statement, a vision by definition is your view or image of the future so it’s not what’s happening right now, it’s not your goals that you need to achieve today or even tomorrow it’s really your dreams, your image of the future, almost like a perfect world. So when the not-for-profit sector, what we’re talking about is when your job is done when you’ve achieved all of your goals what will the world be like. What world will your members say? What will your constituents say? What will your stakeholders say and do and live? What will it be like? So that’s kind of a vision statement. So, they came up with a great one. So, once we finalise that then you move on to the mission statement.

Now, the mission statement is a bit different. So, if the vision is sort of the vision or the image of the future. The mission is more what you need to be doing day-to-day. What do you need to be working on? What drives you? What are some of these objectives on more of a day-to-day basis? So, there’s still somewhat aspirational but they’re a bit closer to home than your vision. So Scw’exmx they had a really great acronym that was CARE, C A R E. So I took great care to make sure that we didn’t mess with the acronym but still were able to tweak the verbiage, to tweak some of the words the language within that and we did that and just a few minor adjustments and then we had ourselves a great mission statement.

So, you want to work on the vision and then the mission so once you’ve got the mission down which are like what are the key things that were, that’s driving us day to day now with that you’re able to then launched into the strategic plan.

So, here are some elements of strategic planning. The first thing I want to share with you guys is that the strategic plan should be compelling. It can’t be something like a, you know the office needs a fresh coat of paint or we need to get some new chairs for the boardroom that is not high-level planning that’s not high-level thinking, not sure isn’t a strategy. It’s not the work that you as a board were called to do. So, what I encourage you to do is to really think of a compelling plan so something that gets you excited even something maybe a little bit scary. That’s when you know that you’re onto something so a compelling plan. Also try to think about a time horizon of anywhere between two, three and five years.

So, one of the challenges that a lot of boards face or mistakes that they make is they come up with a strategic plan that’s only a one year plan which means, I mean how lofty was your goal? If it can be achieved in just one year or one term and there’s really no continuity. There’s no long-term and there’s really nothing for the new board to just kind of you know pick up and run with and help you reach those long-term goals. So, what I encourage you to do is to come up with maybe a three to five-year plan. Something aspirational, something visionary, something compelling, something that’s really going to involve not just your existing leadership at perhaps the next one. So, you start it. You lay the foundation and then they can keep it going for years and years to come to realise that vision. So, a three to five-year plan is ideal with that in mind.

You also want to think about staying high level, staying high level, we’re talking 50,000 feet. So imagine an airplane strategy is 50,000 feet way up here then at the committee level that’s about 25,000 feet, it’s kind of the work that’s being done at the committee level still some strategy but a lot of execution as well you’re about 25,000 feet but then when you go down, ground level that’s more the staff level that’s 10,000 feet. So, a teeny bit of strategy but a whole lot of execution and a whole lot of implementation. So, think about that 50, 25 and 10. Today, at your strategic planning session, you guys are up at 50,000 feet. Please stay there, don’t worry about, well, how are we going to do this. Don’t worry about how you’re going to do that. This sections on about how it’s about the what and the why.

So stay focused on that, cool, and then finally around the during the session only come up with anywhere between three and seven goals three to seven goals, anything less than that you really haven’t pushed yourself and you’re kind of wasting your one or two-day planning session, right. Anything more than 7, I’m not sure it’s manageable. You may not have the resources, in terms of time, money, effort, staff whatever. To actually see these things through and then you might end up feeling overwhelmed, dejected and quit. You don’t want that. So, I think if you just focus on three to seven strategic goals that you can bring forward and work on for the next three to five years. Wow, you’ve accomplished something. So that’s what to do during the planning session and finally after the planning session.

This is where a lot of groups struggle and fail, is they don’t have an implementation plan. So, part one is the strategic plan, part two is the implementation plan. How are you actually going to get this done, some call it deployments, I call execution. I’ll call it implementation, right. So, you’ve set the policy now, you’ve got to implement the policy. So, how do you do that? Here’s how. The first thing you need to do is you need to make a decision. Who is going to do what? By when? Who is going to do what? By when? So, here’s something that I find useful and this is what we did with Scw’exmx this afternoon, is once we nail down those and I think we came up with 6 which was perfect, 6 awesome compelling goals. We then decided to assign a goal champion or a goal ambassador someone that’s responsible for taking that goal forward to the next step.

Recap

Tip 1: Get everybody up to speed on how the organisation is doing. One way is by pulling the organisation vision statement and mission statement and make sure everybody is up to page with it.

Tip 2: Establish a compelling strategic plan with three to eight long-term goals, a span from three to five years.

Tip 3: Establish an implementation plan, and assign goal champion, that will be responsible for taking the goal(s) to the next step.

What To Do After Strategic Planning Session

So, the next step is around exploring the feasibility that doesn’t happen at the planning session that happens in terms of the implementation phase. So, they are now tasked with the feasibility study. How does this work? What do we need to do? What resources are required? Etc. So, that happens afterwards so each board member as it turned out was then tasked with being a champion of one of the goals, that they hold most dear, that they could really, really commit to.

So, then after doing that, the next step is for each of those champions to then strike a task force. Now, a task force is kind of like a committee but it’s not a standing committee. It’s a task force that has a specific task. The task is to review and make recommendations on a specific policy and then report their recommendations to the board for a decision as to what to do next. So, that’s the job of a task force, it’s task-oriented and it has a limited time horizon unlike normal standing committees like membership committee, finance committee, program committee, all of these committees are what we call standing committees that are always there. There’s always something going on. These though task forces are there for a specific need or a specific purpose or a specific project and therefore have and should have a time horizon, a sunset clause. So, in this case, what we did with this group here today, was each of these task forces are struck today and will be ended in four months and that was enough time that we felt that the board needed to do their due diligence and some further research on each of those strategic goals. Four months because they meet bimonthly so they’ll have two board meetings in which to report and speak and share and discuss before they report their findings. So, be sure that you set up task forces. Have a task force chair and then finally come up with the terms of reference for each of those task forces.

The final piece of advice that I would give you around setting up a task force or a committee is to set up a task force or committee comprised of members. One of the biggest mistakes that boards make is they feel like the directors have to do all the work themselves. Well, that’s just a recipe for burnout that doesn’t work and it’s not sustainable. So, if you want something sustainable with leverage, you need to get more people on your team. So, what that means is your job is the chair is not to do all the work. Your job as chair is to recruit committee members or task force members engage them, get them involved, get them feeling empowered and invite them to join your team and assist you in doing some of the hard work.

Recap

Tip 1: Build a task force.

So, those were three tips on what to do, well, several tips but on what to do before during and after a strategic planning session. Hope you guys found these tips really useful. If you have any questions at all about elements of strategic planning or board governance, how to run effective board meetings, anything related to the not-for-profit sector, I’d be happy to answer your questions in the comment below or just drop me a private message, happy to chat with you. Tom Abbott here from AMC NPO solutions live in Merritt bc until next time. See ya.

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.

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