3 Must-haves for Successful Strategic Planning

picjumbo.com_IMG_3241When it’s time to dive into a strategic planning session, it can be daunting to get started. How do you get the right people to work together on the right problems at the right time? How do you make sure the kick off process is efficient, effective and inclusive?

Try incepting it.

What’s an inception? Well, the word incept means, to begin, to commence, to undertake. It’s an effective way to kick off a strategic planning process, and it’s got three key components. It’s

  1. Inclusive
  2. Visual
  3. Strategic (naturally, right?)

How so?

Well, think of an inception process as the kick off to determining what you’re going to build, whether that building is literal (new buildings, programs, initiatives) or figurative (hearts, minds, skills, understandings). Maybe it’s incepting a new mission statement or taking steps to implement or ensure a vision.

How do you get started?

First, make it inclusive. Think of all the people you need in the room to help you determine what you’ll prioritize. These are people who have some stake in what you’ll plan to build. For example, if you’re a school, you’ll want to include students, teachers, staff, parents/family members, leaders, community members, board members, etc. Each of these stakeholders brings domain knowledge to the exercise, and that domain knowledge will prevent you from making incorrect assumptions that can slow the process down later on.

Second, make it visual. Choose as large a wall as is available to you – be sure to plan ahead to choose a room that allows for this. It’s an important piece of the inception environment. You’ll be writing on and taping up lots of different colored and different sized cards index cards. So have them handy and organized before the day begins. Don’t forget the tape! While post-its are handy and easy, we’ve found that they lose their “stickiness” over the course of a day. You want ’em up and staying up, no matter how long the day goes.

Could you conduct the process entirely electronically? Yes, but it won’t be as effective. Trust me. I’ll share an e-product at the end, when it’s most helpful to use it.

What do you write on the cards?

Start off with all the stakeholders you’re considering. Make one card for each stakeholder, and make it your largest card and make it the same color for every card. Write and post each of these as people shout them out around the room. Yep. You’re all together for the inception – no small groups at this point in the process.

Next, choose another card of a different color and use this same card again and again as you determine what the key issues are for each of these stakeholders – issues as in pain points, needs, concerns, all the types of things that come up when these stakeholders enter the conversation. Choose another color of card and determine the benefits and – different color card, but all the same card for each, as well – risks of working on each of these issues for this particular stakeholder. You’re weighing the pros and cons and, together, determining the importance of what’s coming up.

At this point, you should have clusters of cards around each of the stakeholders you’ve been discussing. The clusters should include stakeholder-specific issues, along with their associated benefits and risks. If you’ve got a full wall, that’s terrific. To accommodate all participants, encourage them to write on their own cards and to post them as you go through this exercise. Some won’t feel comfortable yelling out information. They’ll want time to think and reflect.

Talk about the cards, as needed, as they go up. Make time for all participants to walk through, read them, and ask questions. You want to make sure everyone understands what all the cards mean before you work on the last step of the process.

Third, make it strategic. Not it’s time to make some decisions. You can’t do it all. You shouldn’t do it all. You probably can’t afford to do it all – not enough time, resources, etc.

For every issue, benefit and risk associated with each stakeholder, you’re going to need to determine what you can prioritize. The way to do that is to MoSCoW it. For this exercise, you’re going to need different colored sticky dots.

When you MoSCoW a card – issue, benefit and risk – you determine if you must do it, should do it, could do it or won’t do it.

Whew! Play this out. As a group – in its entirety (very important – you’re going to agree to what you must do, should do, could do, and won’t do. Liberating, yes?

When you finish this exercise, you’ll be able to prioritize what needs the most attention all the way down to what you’ll say “no” to. This will take a bit of team, since you’ll be going through each of the cards you posted. It’ll also let you shift easily from this exercise to action planning in a short time. I’d advise against diving into action planning as part of the 2 days. You want to let the work simmer a bit immediately after to ensure clarity.

How much time would I recommend? Two full days with adequate breaks, food, and discussion time built in. It’s worth it.

I would also recommend taking all the cards you’ve posted – all of them, including those dotted “won’t” (btw, pick one color of dot for each one – e.g., green for should, blue for could, etc., to make the process easier at the end) – and entering them into a terrific program, murally. It’s a great way to capture the process and refer to it whenever you need to.

Recap of what you’ll need for a successful inception: 

  • Time – plan for 2 days
  • Environment – make it a pleasant environment with a very large wall on which you can tape lots of different sized and colored cards; make sure there’s enough room for your group members to move around; opt for standing over sitting over the course of the 2 days
  • People – folks with domain knowledge, key stakeholders, those who will be charged with working on the plan you develop together
  • Food – snacks and meals are important, as are beverages to keep folks hydrated
  • Index cards – have at least 8-10 different colors and 3-5 different sizes
  • Tape
  • Sticky dots – have at least 15 sheets with the same rows of colors on each

Let me know how it goes!