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  • Dr. Ken Thiessen

Why Strategic Planning is An Iterative Process Not an Event

Updated: Apr 10, 2019


I am often contacted by nonprofit organizations inquiring as to my availability/interest in conducting a strategic planning retreat. The inquiry tells me a lot about the organization. It tells me they view strategic planning as an event not an iterative process. Typically these organizations are looking for a quick one day fix so that they can say they have a strategic plan.

One client contacted me several years ago and wanted me to submit a proposal for a one day board planning retreat. Two nonprofit organizations had just merged and they wanted me to facilitate a one day Board planning retreat to “ensure that their two organizational cultures were merged into one.” I did submit a proposal but made it very clear that if they wanted to ensure that the cultures of the two organizations were merged into one that was going to take much more than one day. I gave them two options - a one day Board Retreat, and a year long coaching engagement outlining very clearly the outcomes they could expect from each. They opted for the year long coaching engagement and even at the end of the year long engagement there were elements of their two cultures that had not been fully integrated to form one cohesive culture for the new organization.

While I have never had another client ask me for a proposal to address the same organizational need, I have had many organization ask to me to submit a proposal for a one day strategic planning retreat. I rarely submit a proposal that meets their presenting request and there are several reasons for that.


No Credible Strategic Plan Ever Gets Done in One Day

A facilitated one day retreat will result at best in a start on a strategic plan but it’s JUST a start. Most organizations that engage a consultant to facilitate a one day planning retreat leave that day with the illusion that their strategic planning is done. Many of the strategic plans lack the rigour of strategic thinking because that takes more time than one day. They also lack a clearly articulated plan to implement the plan and hold people within the organization accountable to measurable outcomes. While the people gathered may leave feeling like they’ve had a kumbaya experience, rarely does that translate into an ongoing transformative operational impact on the organization that increases team alignment, and long term organizational sustainability and impact, irrespective of their vigorous assertion that “We have a strategic plan!” For all intents and purposes, the organization has effectively wasted money in contracting a consultant to facilitate a one day retreat. That’s why I resist the one day planning retreat. I’ve done enough of them and seen the poor or nonexistent implementation afterwards because there wasn’t the recognition and acknowledgement that strategic planning is an iterative process and a strategic plan is a living document that continues to evolve through time.

I did a one day planning retreat with a nonprofit executive leadership team and board a number of years ago. At the end of it I told the group “You need to continue this process” The Executive director came to me and said, “Ken, I’ve got this nailed.” And that’s where it ended. 3 years later the Board chair came to me and said, “Ken, we should have listened to you 3 years ago.” We’re in trouble and we need your help.” They asked me for a proposal for an ongoing coaching engagement which I provided for them. They accepted the proposal and contracted my services. The Board’s instructions to me were “ Ken, be brutally honest - don’t sugarcoat what you discover.” What I discovered was not pretty. The organization was on the verge of collapse but no one on the board knew it and the Executive Director was unwilling to face the brutal facts. There had been no implementation of the strategic plan 3 years earlier and most of the leadership team were ready to walk out the door. The Executive Director was a toxic leader and that toxicity permeated the entire organization. I worked hard to coach him but he was resistant to any coaching. As I provided the board with ongoing updates, they became more and more concerned and began to do their own due diligence. What they discovered was that as much as I had tried to be brutally honest with them, it was in fact worse than I had conveyed it. They made the tough decision to ask for the Executive Directors resignation. He was shocked at their request, revealing his own lack of self awareness. The board hired an interim Executive Director who worked hard at rebuilding trust with the Senior Leadership Team. We were able to work together to do the strategic thinking and add some substance and rigour to their strategic plan. He was able to bring this team together in a way that most would have never thought possible. When it came time to post the permanent position. His team encouraged him to apply which he did. He was the successful candidate and now 2 years later, the organization toxicity is dramatically reduced. They have a clear strategic plan and they have made consistent steady progress on implement. I’ve met quarterly with the leadership team to continue to revise and update the plan, to hold them accountable to execute on their priorities. As a result, the organization today bears little resemblance to the organization I counted initially.

An Ongoing Coaching Engagement Dramatically Increases the Transformative Impact of Your Strategic Plan

Most nonprofits struggle to make this required critical mindset shift to realize the transformative impact of a strategic planning process. Those organizations willing to take the risk and engage the hard work to make this mindset shift experience exponential benefits and transformation as the reward for the risk. My clients would confirm that the reward is more than worth the risk! The Before and After pictures for these organizations are dramatically different. I have not had one client who was able to make the mindset shift who later regretted it or didn’t appreciate seeing the transformative impact on the organization empowering them to scale up their growth and impact as a organization and drastically increase engagement throughout the entire organization. A comment I often hear from CEO’s, Executive Directors, and their leadership team members is, “This is so different than anything we’ve ever done before around strategic planning, we’re having fun and it’s energizing!


The Secret Sauce


So what’s the secret sauce? What’s the magic that yields this exponential return on impact? Part of it is the Four DecisionsTM Planning Framework I use as a Certified Gravitas Impact Premium coach, Click here to see an overview of the framework. Another part of it is the disciplined structure of meeting quarterly with the entire leadership team to measure progress on identified priorities and action items. Another part is monthly coaching meetings with the CEO/Executive Director. These quarterly and monthly meeting serve to keep the organizational train on the rails so to speak. Another important component is the online Metronome Growth Systems planning software subscription which I include for all of my clients. This is a non-negotiable that they use and keep the online planning software updated between meeting. Each team member is set up with their own profile. Each Team member enters their own priorities and action items outlining specifically what it is they’e committing to do and a deadline for completion. Each team member can see where their colleagues are at in terms of identified priorities and action items. This builds accountability into the entire leadership team dramatically increasing their collective ability to take their strategic plan from idea to implementation.



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