How long does it take to complete a Strategic Plan? Well, how many cats are involved?
A Strategic Plan process can be complicated or simple – depending on an organization’s goals, needs and culture. A large company has many moving parts – and its plan might require a significant investment in discovery and research time. A small nonprofit, however, may have one clear objective and only needs a few meetings to determine the best path.
Because big decisions happen in Strategic Plans, discussions can get batted around for months and years. Reaching consensus often depends on how well the organization herds the cats.
That’s where independent facilitators can make the process purr. They help their clients find common objectives and develop a way to achieve them.
Not everyone is sold on having facilitators. Perceptions about their value or cost sometimes lead organizations to decide on a "DIY Strategic Plan."
Company boards may believe a senior partner or chief executive can lead the Strategic Plan Retreat (and save a little money). That approach often becomes stagnate or – in the worst case - divisive due to personal agendas or lack of knowledge about a proven process.
Nonprofit boards may ask their chair to lead the charge, only to discover that the process loses momentum because – well – board chairs generally have day jobs.
Without an independent facilitator, a planning process can easily become a ball of yarn wound up of conflicting threads -- a failure to focus, a reluctance to address key issues, no system for accountability and/or making it too convoluted.
Here’s what independent facilitators do to keep the cats moving along during a Strategic Plan:
They bring a proven process to the table
Company executive and nonprofit directors do their jobs very well. They have experience and knowledge – about their profession. Chances are, though, they have not developed, tested and implemented an effective Strategic Plan process. Facilitators do this for a living. They know the sequence of decisions necessary to create an effective plan. And if the process doesn’t work, the facilitator’s firm isn’t in business very long.
They know what questions to ask, and aren’t afraid to challenge the answers
Facilitators change the room dynamics. They go to the heart of the issues and get to the root of key issues – whether operational or personal. They set the tone for inclusion and work hard to make certain everyone is heard.
They are neutral in their observations and assessments
Facilitators know how to identify potential obstacles in the process – and can present them within the context of neutrality. They know how to discover key issues and present possible solutions, without bias. They challenge the group to honestly identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats – and use collaborative techniques to address them.
They keep the clowder (a group of cats) moving
Once the timetable and process are agreed upon, facilitators dangle the catnip. They establish ground rules for discussions, enforce deadlines to make decisions and make certain time is well spent. When conversations stray from the pack, they gently grab them by the back of the neck and pull them back into the fold.
They know how to cope with all sorts of cats
Even if a board or management team gets along, there are varying degrees of personalities and traits. Some people want to over-analyze the tedious details, while others prefer to discuss generalities. Some people talk a lot – others not so much. Facilitators have ways to make certain all voices are heard, understood and valued.
They have no position in the org chart
Facilitators only care that the process best serves the organization. They are not seeking a promotion nor the adulation of the CEO. Participants are more likely to share their ideas and raise questions to an independent facilitator rather than their boss. Having a facilitator allows more productive conversations and better participation from everyone.
Other Ways Facilitators Herd the Strategic Plan Process
• They require participants to conduct research on proposed goals and activities. Anyone can sit in a retreat and brainstorm ideas. Stakeholders become more engaged when they have to provide evidence of why a goal or activity should be included.
• They make everyone accountable and responsible for at least one step in the plan.
• They make the group turn off cell phones and allow them to answer emails and text messages only at specified times.
• They keep the cats out of the weeds. If someone wants to talk about the importance of increased marketing, they steer them away from discussions about the home page video on the organization’s website.
Jeff Owen is a Partner with Arête Purpose Consulting and is a Partner with Clever Dogs Media. He and his wife have two dogs – but once had a cat named Nicholas, who knew how to open the bathroom door.