Over the years, the term “strategic planning” has become so commonly used (and misused) that it has practically lost its meaning. Strategic planning—creating a roadmap for an organization’s future—is a critical process. It’s important to determine if and when it’s the right time to start the process; what the key components, steps, and benefits are to creating a successful plan; and who should be involved in the process.
Timing Is Everything
As is true in many things, proper timing is essential to the strategic planning process. While it can be tempting to want to conduct strategic planning when a crisis hits, this is the worst time to consider it. It does not make sense to plan an organization’s future through the lens of a crisis when its immediate future is in question. It is best to conduct crisis planning (ideally before a crisis hits) and consider the longer term future when your organization is back in steady waters. Going through the strategic planning process to fulfill a grant requirement can also be problematic. Not only can it bring into question the integrity of the process, but it is also not mission-based, which is a fundamental component of successful strategic planning.
Strategic planning has two main purposes: to determine what an organization intends to accomplish in the future and to figure out how to get there. This process is best undertaken when an organization is stable and has the time, resources, data, and stakeholder buy-in to fully complete the process. In addition, it is essential that the leadership intends to follow through on the recommendations. There is no sense in creating a plan that will never be properly implemented.
Timeline: What’s Realistic and What’s Not
So, how long does it take to create a strategic plan, and how long a time period should it cover? The size and complexity of an organization are significant factors in determining the amount of time it takes to create a strategic plan, but in general, you should be prepared to spend several months creating a framework. If you take significantly longer than that, the plan can lose relevance, momentum, and stakeholder interest. Given the amount of time they take to create and implement, most strategic plans cover a time period of 3 years—long enough to allow time for the plan to be enacted and show results, but not so long that the data and goals should change.
Day-long and weekend retreats dedicated to strategic planning have become popular for many organizations, but ideally, the process should be spread over several months, so that true perspective and adequate time can be given to data collection and mapping out the future of your organization.
Who Should Take Part in the Process?
Exclusivity is critical to effective strategic planning. Gathering input exclusively from top management and the board of directors will not give you the breadth and depth of information that you need, nor will it create ownership among varying stakeholders. It is best to put together a core group of people that represents a cross-section of the organization to work through the strategic planning steps. An ideal planning group has 20 or fewer individuals, but that does not mean that you cannot reach out to other groups and individuals to get their perspectives. Ultimately, you want and need a vision for your organization that bubbles up, not one that is top-down.
Benefits of Strategic Planning
When done well, strategic planning can have many benefits for your organization. It can create focus and direction for the future, provide goals and objectives that can be evaluated and measured, build teams, give individuals and leadership a sense of control, assist in prioritizing activities, and create scenarios where you can be proactive instead of reactive. In order to achieve these benefits, you must be conscious of the time, resources, and buy-in that are needed to successfully create and implement a strategic plan. Your organization’s future is depending on it.