Strategic Planning

You Can’t Do It All: How to Create a Strategic Action Plan

We were having a conversation about strategy execution with a customer a couple weeks ago when they made a really salient point: “We just want to make sure we are evaluating ideas we have for strategic initiatives in a way that identifies and prioritizes high-impact projects.”

It’s a common problem. When faced with all of the things that you could do, how do you prioritize and select the initiatives and actions that will provide the best results? We all have constraints that limit the amount of new initiatives we can launch—including funding and organizational capacity.

And, let’s face it, we usually select what we’re going to move forward with based on our experience, best practices and politics.

Our customer in this case, a large cancer center in the northeast, already has a very thoughtful process for developing strategic actions. They start by collecting ideas from throughout the 17,300-member organization, which are then evaluated and fleshed out to determine the viability, impact and cost. The ideas with the most promise are promoted to “options” which are then pulled into the strategic planning process.

Based on what is ready to implement and how it aligns with strategy, they then promote certain options to actions and begin to execute.

It’s a good, logical sequence to strategic prioritization and action planning that helps winnow the many things they could do down to the ones that they will do.

The question is: Are they picking the right ones?

While we didn’t reach a solid conclusion in our discussion—there’s still work to be done to determine the best course—we did outline a few approaches that would help identify the best candidates for actions.

The ideas included:

  1. Using an evaluation matrix
  2. Aligning against intended strategic outcomes, and;
  3. Using a cross-functional task team.

Any of these three approaches would provide helpful guidance in developing a strategic action plan and it’s possible to use all three. The key is to use the tools that get the job done with the lowest impact on staff and that fit the culture of your organization.

Let’s look at these different approaches in action:

Approach 1: Testing ideas against consensus criteria using an evaluation matrix

During the Great Recession, the City Council I worked for wanted a way to prioritize city services for budget reductions. They knew that across-the-board cuts weren’t going to do it, as the cuts would be so deep in some areas that mandated or critical services would be impaired. And they wanted the voice of the customer to come through in any decisions they made.

They decided to convene a service priorities task force consisting of eight appointees representing various perspectives in the community and asked me to work with them to prioritize our services.

Interesting problem: how do you take a group of people with marginal knowledge of city services and lead them to develop a way to prioritize them? In five months, no less.

After spending the first two months providing a crash course in city services, we spent the next two months developing the strategic prioritization methodology that we could use that applied independent criteria across all service types.

After significant debate, they settled on nine criteria to rate each service:

  • Promotes public safety
  • Contributes to quality of life
  • Assists economic growth and development
  • Vital to health
  • Protects environment and infrastructure
  • Generates revenue or recovers cost
  • Creates opportunity for arts, culture or enrichment
  • Promotes civic engagement
  • Provides an essential service

Based on their perceptions of community needs, each individual task member then scored all services in a strategic prioritization matrix, assigning a score from 1 to 4 for each criterion, with the scores representing:

  1.  = Service does not support this criteria at all
  2. = Service indirectly supports this criteria
  3. = Service provides some support to this criteria
  4. = Service provides major support to this criteria

We applied this logic to all 58 major external programs the city provided and sorted the services by score. Internal services were not included, but were scaled to fit the needs of the reduced organization. The initial result was very good—core, mandated services were at the top and discretionary ones further down. The committee also felt that the ranking mirrored community values. The only issues they could see was where there were interdependencies, where one program’s outputs affected another’s inputs and resources.

A couple of tweaks to fix those issues and our task was finished. The Council used the task force’s ranking to balance the budget, and in the end, it proved to be effective in averting financial crisis.

You could take the same approach to prioritizing initiatives, projects, and actions. Determine what the key criteria are (e.g., delivers key outcome, supports strategic priority, has resources committed, etc.), weight them, and rank potential actions against them.

Approach 2: Applying an outcome-based approach

One of our webinar guest speakers this year, Andrew Kleine, shared an approach to resource allocation that increases the odds of identifying meaningful actions that support strategy through outcome-based budgeting. The approach he designed for the City of Baltimore in making decisions about funding was to develop a list of Priority Outcomes and Indicators that defined success for each.

Once the outcomes are set, the city produces a “request for results” for each that defines the needs to be addressed. City departments then prepare bids that describe projects and programs specifically designed to address the issues identified and the City then selects the bid with the best return on investment. This allows for creativity and the energy from competition to come into play, increasing the likelihood of innovative approaches and keeping employees focused both on the public purpose and costs.

While it may be difficult to transition your entire organization to an outcome-based budgeting approach, you can use this framework as a way to identify proposals to achieve desired results for your strategic goals and priorities. Creating “requests for results” helps to define the key outcomes you want to achieve and opens up the potential for creative ideas from non-traditional sources, including seemingly unrelated departments, vendors, local businesses and the nonprofit community. Just because it’s something you’re hoping to achieve doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the best one to deliver the program. By building partnerships around strategy execution with other stakeholders in the community, you increase your odds of success while building a shared vision for the community.

Approach 3: Developing a cross-functional innovation team

Neonila, our Director of Customer Innovation, offered this idea as a way to evaluate tactics you are considering to achieve strategic goals. By bringing together key stakeholders—the people with skin in the game—to discuss the impacts and consequences of various actions, you’ll get a dynamic and diverse view into the actions you are contemplating.

Some customers will convene these teams around goal areas or strategic priorities, having them oversee the various projects and programs related to strategy execution over the long term. The teams are made up of subject matter experts and support staff from finance, information technology, organizational development and performance offices. Any department that is impacted by potential actions is usually represented as well.

A team charter is used to clearly define the area of responsibility, establish accountability, and create momentum around each goal area. The team can then use their members and supporting departments to conduct research into innovative approaches and evaluate their potential use by the organization.

Sometimes the committees will oversee pilot projects to test the effectiveness of various approaches to see what works, without over-committing. This helps avoid the problem I call “zombie programs,” ideas that were implemented that didn’t really work but now have budget line items and assigned staff and never seem to die.

Regardless of the approach you take, what’s important when creating a strategic action plan is to have a logical method to assess potential actions so that you can choose the ones best suited to your strategic goals.

How to Start Building an Operational Plan

P.S. If you need help figuring out the best approach for your organization, I’m happy to help. We also provide complete action planning workshops to help you align your programs and projects with your long-term strategic priorities and vision. Just give us a call.

Kevin Knutson

Kevin has spent more than 20 years working for the cities of Coral Springs, Florida and Reno, Nevada, specializing in administration, budget, strategic planning, performance management, process improvement and communications.

He also served as a local government consultant, where he provided more than 200 strategic planning, performance management and organizational assessment projects to 142 cities, counties and districts across the US.

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