The purpose of strategic planning is to align organizational resources to achieve long-range goals, and there are dozens of effective ways to accomplish this result. Although you’ve likely used a couple of them and heard of others, some may sound like something off a menu in Kyoto. It’s easy to get stuck on trying to figure out the right approach for your organization.
Some common strategic planning models used in local government include:
- Standard strategic planning—This is the most common approach used by local governments and school districts and involves identifying a long-term (20-50 year) vision, mid-term goals (3-5 Years) and short-term strategies and actions (1-2 years) to achieve them, based on research about the community.
- Community-based strategic planning/visioning—A process that engages residents in a discussion about their hopes and dreams for the community and what it will look like in the future, with specific action steps developed to get there.
- Council goal-setting—A stripped-down version that involves working with elected officials to determine the organization’s top policy priorities over the next few years to align resources and staff effort.
- Strategic gap/need analysis—In this approach, the organization defines its ideal outcomes and compares it against current performance. Actions are then identified to close the gaps.
- Issue-based strategic planning—Where traditional strategic planning starts with a vision for the future and works back to what we need to do today to get there, issue-based planning takes a careful look at the current environment, identifies problems and asks the question “What are we going to do to improve in these areas?”
Many local governments have also used private sector approaches to good effect, such as Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), Hoshin Kanri, Balanced Scorecard (BSC), scenario planning, self-organizing planning and others.
With so many choices, it can be hard to figure out which one will help you deliver results.
It doesn’t really matter which strategic planning model you use, it turns out, because selecting an approach is about leadership style and corporate culture rather than relative effectiveness of the different models.
The reason for this is that all strategic planning models share several key characteristics, and the differences have more to do with the way leaders prefer to talk about and visualize the issues and challenges that they must address, rather than the way they are going to do it.
The underlying framework of strategic planning models—goals, strategy and delivery
All strategic planning approaches have the following in common:
- Goals—Clarify what you want to accomplish
- Strategy—Identify what actions you need to take to get there, and
- Delivery—Implement, monitor, control and report on progress and results
If it seems simple, it’s because it is.
Strategy is how you are going to mobilize resources to achieve an outcome. The plan is just the road map for your team to follow and the measure of your success.
The foundation for a rock-solid strategy development process
Let’s have a look at each of these three areas to see how they work together. While many of the strategic planning approaches cited above have additional tools or activities, they are all based on the three foundational ideas.
The basis of setting goals is understanding what the community or organization wants to achieve in a concrete way. A useful way to look at it is that you are defining success so that when you reach your destination, you know it was the one you intended. It’s the most important step, because, as Yogi Berra noted: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.”
For many communities, this means establishing a long-term vision for what it will be like in 20,30, 50 or even 100 years. It could also mean establishing a mission statement, defining why the organization exists. For self-organizing planning, you might start with a set of values that will define appropriate actions. It doesn’t matter so much what you call it—what matters is that you have a big-picture outcome you want to achieve.
Next, you narrow your focus by identifying three to six goals or priorities that you can reach over the mid-term, say three to five years, that reflect what the community needs to do to achieve the long-term vision. For goal-based or issue-based planning, it’s helpful if you have a good understanding of the current conditions in the community and organization to select goals that will be effective in making progress. Again, the name doesn’t matter as much as the function. Some organizations call them strategic priorities, pillars, critical success factors, or focus areas.
For example, if part of your vision is to be the safest city in the state, the goals should include improving public safety, communications, building codes, or transportation. Whatever is needed to make the vision a reality for your community.
There are a lot of tools to help you develop your vision and goals. Many communities opt to engage residents, businesses, students and parents in workshops designed to gather input around their vision for the community. Others use surveys, online platforms, focus groups, and charrettes to gather intelligence from stakeholders.
Taking stock of current conditions is important too. What services do you provide and to whom? How are the service delivery mechanisms affected by changes in technology, legislation, or demographics? What changes are on the horizon for the community? What economic impacts could help or hinder you on your path? Conducting an environmental scan provides a baseline to plan from.
Some other tools that can be used to help develop your vision and priority goals will help identify goals include:
- Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunities-Threats (SWOT) analysis
- Political-Economic-Social-Technological (PEST) analysis
- Political-Economic-Social-Technological-Legal-Environmental (PESTLE) analysis
- Service-demand analysis
Any information you gather can help you refine the vision and goals you establish.
Lastly, it is also helpful to identify key performance indicators (KPIs) for each goal area that provide quantitative measures of the outcomes you hope to achieve. This allows you to set targets and measure success against objective standards.
Once you have the high-level, long- and mid-term goals established, you’ll want to get even more concrete about how you’re going to achieve them, by identifying strategies and actions. This stage is critical in that it takes the big picture thinking behind the vision and goals and injects a bit of reality. What resources will it take to achieve our goals? How long will it take? What are the things we need to do differently?
Strategies are the short-term approaches you’re going to apply to achieve the goals. In the same way that the goals define the path toward the vision, strategies map the path to the goal. They usually have a shorter time frame, one to three years, and can be framed as objectives for the organization to achieve.
In the public safety example above, strategies might include reducing property crime, minimizing crashes at high-risk intersections, or improving traffic signalization.
For each strategy, staff should identify actions that will be taken in the next 12 to 18 months to implement the strategy. The actions are included in departmental work plans and have assigned owners and timelines, to ensure accountability.
Each action should be “SMART,” that is, Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timebound. That means we need to have performance metrics that track the action, a schedule or work plan to follow, and the resources necessary to make it happen.
Examples of actions that support the strategy to minimize crashes could include such things as conducting traffic studies, targeted traffic enforcement, dynamic positioning of emergency vehicles, or optimizing signal timing.
Plan implementation and reporting
Once the plan has been developed, most strategic planning approaches include tools for executing the plan. Common tools include:
- Monitoring progress and status of actions
- Identifying disruptions
- Allowing for adaptability in response to external impacts
- Reporting structure and cadences
- Sharing information with stakeholders
- Celebrating wins
Implementing the actions that support strategic plans is often an exercise in project management, with action plans and timelines, key milestones, and performance metrics.
When establishing a planning approach, it’s important to understand who will use information about the plan and progress and when they need it. Our blog post “How to Build a Local Government Performance Reporting Framework” provides more detail, but the key is that different audiences (e.g., staff, your leadership team, your governing body, and the public) have different needs, both in the type and frequency of information.
By tracking progress and status on plan elements, you are able to identify where disruptions are occurring and assess what actions you will take in response. Whether you change the due dates, assign more resources, or even discontinue the action, reacting quickly can help both mitigate adverse consequences and help make decisions based on data.
Most strategic planning models also have a review period for multi-year planning horizons. Being able to adapt the plan to changing circumstances or absorb the impact of major events, such as hurricanes or earthquakes, keeps the plan relevant and the timeline realistic.
Lastly, the structure of most models allows for sharing data about plan progress, status and performance to your elected body and public on a regular basis. Annual reports, workshops and public dashboards allow you to tell the story of the organization’s journey toward achieving the goals and vision, celebrate success, and engage the community around a common purpose.
No matter what strategic planning approach you decide to use, if you get these three essential things right, your plan can be a success.
Leadership matters more than the strategic planning model
We noted at the start that the strategic planning model was really a function of leadership style, which means that the right approach is the one that best fits the organizational culture. One of the key reasons for this is that the main cause of failing to execute strategic plans is lack of follow-through. A manager, administrator or superintendent may be instrumental in developing the plan, but unless they thread it into the management processes, it becomes the proverbial “plan on the shelf.”
Leaders make a difference in each of the fundamentals. They:
- Provide a framework for plan development
- Organize staff to identify strategy
- Mobilize the organization to execute the plan
The last item is often the most difficult, but also the most important. At the end of the day, for a plan to be successful, there must be a commitment to seeing it through on a day-to-day basis.
The best plan in the world is useless if you’re not using it to move the organization forward.
Developing the plan is just the beginning. The real work comes when we put it into action.
In a future post, we’ll explore how senior leaders can bring strategy to life.