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Strategic-PlanningI offer this confession to you in case you are leading an organization, a church, or a ministry and find yourself in a similar circumstance:

In September 2012, the Board of Directors for Let’s Start Talking  met by teleconference for one of our three regular meetings.  At the very end of this meeting, one of the directors brought up—again—the question of whether I (Executive Director) had made any progress towards implementing the board’s desire for LST to develop a strategic plan.

I had not been really keen on the idea, so I had used the fact that the board wanted to hire outside assistance and the costs that such assistance would involve as an excuse to drag my feet on the whole process.

With polite and kind words, the board made it very clear to me that they really wanted this to happen and that I should quit resisting.  I admit to being more than a little irritated about being pushed, but I do serve at their pleasure, so I reluctantly acquiesced.  (By the way, Sherrylee sided with the board, so if I was going to have peace at home, I was going to have to cooperate as well!)

Perhaps, the one good decision I made that day was to do what I was told to do!  Now I not only see their wisdom, but I’ve enjoyed the process and believe that the money, time, and effort were well spent and will benefit the ministry and the mission immensely.

Here was our timeline:

September 2012       Decision to proceed with strategic plan and to hire a coach to assist

Dec/Jan 2013           Search for strategic planning coach.  Mike Bonem hired Jan. 15

February 2013          Bonem meets with LST board/ Kick-off of strategic planning

March 2013               Debrief board and prepare surveys and database lists for data gathering. Begin collecting data from outside surveys

April 2013                  Staff workshop;  Senior staff assimilates all input into 6-8 major objectives

May 2013                   Board meets to assimilate all input and suggests major objects. Determination that Board and senior staff lists were virtually identical.  Executive Director assigned to create working list of objectives and begin developing appropriate strategies.

June, July, August  ED with regular input from coach develops the concrete strategies and actions plans for each ministry objective

End of August          The first draft of the strategic plan is submitted to LST senior staff, the coach, and the board of directors

September                 Revisioning and reviews

Sept. 29, 2013          The strategic plan was presented for final adoption to the board of directors. With some amendments, the plan was approved.

October 2013            The final plan was distributed to the board and to the staff.

 

The following steps should occur after the process has been completed:

  • Announce the objectives appropriately.  This does not mean you publish it as is to everyone you know, but my experience is that if you don’t tell people what you are planning to do, then you are not really committed to it yet!  Or you are too afraid of failure!  Announce the objectives, perhaps even individually at different times, but your community needs to know that you are thinking strategically and the direction you are going, so that they can be as fully committed to you as you desire.
  • Do not make the mistake of trying to do everything at once. Your plan should have included a timeline for action items. If you don’t have a timeline for your action items, now is the time to create it—with a big dose of realistic expectations!
  • Plan immediately when you and your board will review the strategic plan? The plan should be available at all future board meetings until everyone becomes very familiar with it.  Using it as a checklist against reality will become natural.  Sometimes you will want to change what you are doing to match the plan; other times, you may want to change the plan to match a new reality.
  • Be clear on the timeframe that the plan encompasses. What this suggests, of course, is that this plan has a pre-determined lifespan.  Don’t wait until it dies to start the process again for the next one.  If you will stop and review the process you have just gone through, you may capture some ideas that will help the next strategic planning process go more smoothly or produce better results.

Finally, this verse has long been one that has brought peace to my soul when I feel the burden of leadership, especially with looking into an uncertain future. I offer it to you at the end of this series as my best advice.  Believe it!

Unless the Lord builds the house,
    those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
    the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
    and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
    for he gives to his beloved sleep 

                        Psalm 127:1-2

 

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Strategic-PlanningIf you have been collaborative in your development of the strategic plan, then this final step should be easy.  On the other hand, if you have either chosen or been required to develop the plan alone, it could be more challenging to get others on board with your strategies.

In either case, getting final agreement on the strategic plan is critical to the success of your plan—even more so, the success of your mission!

First, be clear on who must approve the strategic plan.  For our ministry, it is required that the board of directors approves the plan.  Our board asked for the strategic plan and voted to secure the outside coach in order to facilitate the process. They have invested heavily both of themselves and their resources in the ministry, therefore, in the results of the strategic plan.  Their approval is essential for all of the reasons given above.

On the other hand, while it is important for the LST staff to buy into the plan, it is not necessary for them to approve it. The same is true of volunteers or donors or other constituents.  They should have all had input as you collected information, and your plans should serve them well, but their delight should be with the results of the implementation of the plan, not the plan itself.

Second, when you go to get the final approval, be prepared to feel challenged. The tension in this final approval meeting is that you have poured yourself into this strategic plan for weeks or months, but you must present it to people who are highly invested, but not nearly as familiar with it.  Expect to be questioned; expect to explain the most basic rationale for any assumption or any conclusion stated in the strategic plan; expect to feel challenged.  If you expect to feel challenged, then you will better control your natural desire to defend every word on the page!

Third, be prepared for something to be changed.  If you and your approval board are truly not on the same page, then you’ve got a bigger problem that just getting the strategic plan approved. But assuming that you and your approval board are very much in agreement, and assuming that your approval board has had a significant role in the planning process, then you can expect less to be changed . . .however, less is still something, and you can’t allow yourself to think that you have created the perfect document and any change will destroy its perfection.

Upon presentation of our plan to the LST board of directors, they eliminated one major objective of the plan as being redundant.  By the time we had talked it through, I agreed with them, so while it was a significant change to what I had presented, the impact on our common strategic plan was very slight.  Keep your ego out of the way and assume that you and your approval board both are focused on the common mission and suggested changes to the plan are much less threatening.

Finally, call for a vote and bring closure to the process.  If there are changes to be made, then you can offer to revise the document to include the changes and then re-submit it for final approval, but don’t leave the final approval up in the air, or uncertain, or for some undetermined time.  If you cannot get agreement at what you thought was the final meeting, set another date when you will meet again to get the final approval.  What you want to avoid is assuming that the plan was adopted when, in fact, anyone on your board still has serious reservations that might torpedo the whole plan if not addressed and either dismissed or affirmed by the whole board.

As I said at the beginning, the easiest way to avoid tension and conflict at this final stage is to include the decision-makers in meaningful ways early and throughout the process.

The  last installment of this series on strategic planning is what to do next after the strategic plan is approved. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Strategic-PlanningI’ve heard that most airplane crashes happen in the first two minutes of take-off or the last two minutes in landing!  I’ve also read that the majority of car wrecks happen within two miles of home!  Do you get my drift here?

Finish the written strategic plan strong. You have put so much work into it that you can hardly imagine that you might not finish strong, so let me just point out a few of the traps and make a couple of suggestions for landing the written strategic plan.

Trap #1          Being tired of the process is not the same as finishing!  You have put in so many hours, often weeks and months worth of work, not just in the writing process, but also in the surveying, the analyzing, the focus groups, the drafting, the revisioning processes, that it is just time to deliver this baby!  The temptation is to draw the line today and deliver it to the board . . . . but that’s not finishing. That’s just stopping—and there is a big difference!

Trap #2          The deadline can become more important than finishing well. Should a pilot that is coming in for landing too fast just risk it, or should he pull up and go around again.  Of the many factors that must be considered, getting the passengers to the gate on time is not one of the most important ones when it comes to safety. If you need another day, another week to finish well, ask for it. Most of you are dealing with self-imposed deadlines anyway.

Trap #3          During the revisioning process, someone suggests that you are totally off track and calls for a re-start.  Everyone who writes a dissertation has a story. I had one professor on my committee who was known to leave doctoral students crashed and burning in his wake.  After spending two years researching and writing my dissertation and receiving the tentative approval of my advisor, we submitted it to the committee. It came back from them with high praise—except for The Wrecker, who thought the whole premise was unworthy.  Five days before my defense before the committee who would determine whether the dissertation passed or failed, my advisor suggested that I write one more chapter which he felt would give him enough leverage to withstand the assault of the Wrecker.  I wrote that chapter; we added it to the previous ones and submitted the final version of the dissertation to the committee.  At the defense, the Wrecker arrived 45 minutes late, then acted rudely indifferent to anything happening in the room. When it came his turn to comment, he simply said that he never had believed in the project and he thought it was a poor excuse for a dissertation.  He was the only dissenter when it came time to vote, so I passed.  Don’t let a minority naysayer throw you off course.  If you have gone through the process, sought good input and feedback along the way, and are confident that the plan is good, don’t let the almost inevitable critic derail you.  Finish anyway!

And here are a couple of tips you should follow to finish strong!

Tip #1       Pay attention to formatting and packaging your strategic plan well.  Now I’m really getting picky, but you must now think of the wrapping paper. Don’t stick your gift in a brown paper bag and just pitch it to the recipients.  Wrap it beautifully and appropriately and make the delivery something special.  Specifically, I’m suggesting that you look again carefully at the formatting on the page. Is it organized, divided and subdivided clearly?  Is the organization transparent?  Is the font readable while appropriate for the level of formality?  Do the pagination and page breaks contribute to the ease of reading? Would it be better received in a binder than put together with paper clips?

Tip #2       Deliver it. Believe in it! Nothing is perfect. As soon as you send it out, you are going to find a typo or a phrase that you wish you could rewrite. But as much as you wanted perfection, don’t let its imperfection devastate you or you won’t be able to make others believe in it.

I’ve got two more pieces in this series on strategic planning. Next we will look at getting final agreement for your board or overseers, and then we’ll talk about what to do when the whole process is finally finished.

 

 

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Strategic-PlanningRevision is at once both the best of times and the worst of times.  If you are tasked with writing the strategic plan for your organization/ministry, then you will be dealing with all the challenges of writing a public document.  It may sound overly dramatic, but the quality of your work will finally be judged by your ability to revise!  So let me give you some tips that will ensure a more pleasurable experience as well as a premium product.

  • Accept the fact from the beginning that no word you write is holy, that everything may be discarded and/or replaced. Perhaps the most common mistake of inexperienced writers is to assume that their first efforts are their best.  Their virgin words feel more natural, more authentic, somehow more purely inspired.  The truth is that most first offerings should be trashed. An experienced writer knows this is true and assumes it will happen, whereas inexperienced writers are offended that their words were not taken seriously.  Please, get your head around the idea that much of what you write will be replaced with better writing—perhaps multiple times. 
  • Revision means “re-visioning” your writing.  You have to look at your writing again in order to do revisioning properly. That means reading your writing as if you had not written it, which is very difficult.  Often to gain this degree of objectivity, you have to let it sit for a day or two and then come back to it.  Having enough time to let writing sit often seems like a luxury, but you can help yourself if you will not procrastinate the writing/revisioning so that you do not increase the pressure on yourself. 
  • Let other people read it and ask them to mark any place they have to stop and re-read something.  You can use this tip as well when you are revising. Anytime you “stumble” in your reading or you have to go back and re-read a portion, mark that for certain revision.  If others will do this for you, it will also help with the needed objectivity.
  • Let others read your draft for content and clarity. Ask those people who are the best writers or best communicators AND those who are best informed in the content area about which you are writing.
  • Determine who will do the final proofreading.  If you are not a detail person, one well versed in grammar and punctuation, then you MUST find someone who is and have them make final corrections.  These are not likely the same people who read for content and clarity.
  • As the final author, you have the final say, BUT you are foolish if you don’t pay attention to every suggestion and every correction.  If you don’t have a marvelous reason for rejecting a suggestion, you should probably adapt it to your text.  The same is true for grammar and punctuation suggestions.
  • You are not really finished until . . . well, most experienced writers never quite know when they are finished. They just know when they need to stop. Of course, you are letting your leadership team and your board read as you write, so they will be coming with suggestions each time you let them read it.  When I feel like what is done should be done, then I tell my Readers that this is the final draft unless they find some glaring typo or major grammatical error. Such an ultimatum will usually stop those who continue wanting to add new objectives or new ideas to every draft they read.

If you follow these suggestions, your written products will not only be better, but your writing will improve.  The more you write, the better your writing becomes.  Experienced writers often incorporate some of these tips as they write, so they appear to write with much less time spent on revision.  I can assure you that earlier they have accumulated the same number of hours that you need. 

Learn to love revision, not dread it, and your writing will become prodigiously better!

Next:  Producing the final draft of the strategic plan

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Strategic-PlanningNothing about writing is harder than starting!  Everything is more important, the time of day is all wrong, the computer just keeps jumping over to Free Cell, and every interruption is welcomed!  And if you don’t write regularly for any reason, starting a writing project is even harder!

Here are some general writing tips to help you get started.

  • Set aside a time that works for you, when you will be uninterrupted for at least an hour.  Even here in my office with fifteen people who could walk in the door at any time, I just announce to them that when my door is closed, please do not disturb me except for something really, really important.  Other people go to Starbucks or another place they can be anonymous. At a time in my life when uninterrupted time was even more rare, I stayed up later than everyone else in the family on nights when I had to write.
  • Start with what you know best.  We were in the middle of work on our financial model at LST, so the very first piece of the outline that I attacked was the part I was working on every day anyway.  I could, for the most part, just write from the information already available to me.  That was Part 1, but Part 5B of the outline was something that we had been working on since February, so it was also easy to write. 5B was the second part of the outline that I finished.  Write what you know best, what you are already working on, or what you have the most information about.  That makes starting much easier.
  • Divide and conquer.  Break your task down into small parts.  Instead of thinking about writing a 30-page strategic plan, I sat down and wrote one-half page on a new website!  Instead of a tome, I just needed to write on six objectives—and most of those objectives were broken down into three or four sub-points, so I could just write on one sub-point at a time and feel like I had made great progress! It was not until I finished that I knew our plan would have thirty pages.  I just added all the small parts together one day–and there it was.
  • Just start.  Sit down, turn on the computer, put the Objective number at the top of the page . . . and start writing . . . doesn’t make much difference if it is good writing or if it is even on the subject. What you are doing is just getting into the groove.  After a few minutes of this, stop, see if you’ve said anything worthwhile—and if you have, cut that and paste it on to a new page and this time start writing on the topic, using the good of what you have already written.
  • Don’t edit yourself!  Very few writers can write creatively and edit themselves at the same time.  This means, don’t worry about spelling and grammar, about outlining, underlining, centering, fonts, or anything else at this point.  First, just write.  Editing will come later in the process. If you start worrying about receive or recieve you will never get past the first paragraph.

Your goal is to get a draft written!  A draft is just a first attempt. If you accept from the beginning that you will change what you’ve written when you do your revision, your editors will change it, your leadership team will change it, your board will change it—it’s going to be changed many times before its finished, so don’t think you’ve got to get it right the first time!  Just get it written.

Next:  Revision is a necessary part of the writing process, so we’ll talk next time about the hard work of revising your writing.

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Strategic-PlanningYou have queried all of your important constituents, so you have mountains of information.  You have filtered your information a variety of ways to look at the collected data from every conceivable angle—or so you think!

Now it is time to actually decide what the information says—and that is perhaps the key task in the whole strategic planning process.

First, look for where the streams of information lead to lakes!  After we finished our surveys and collected our giant SWOT sticky notes hanging on our walls, our leadership team got together, committed the whole day to the process, shut the door and turned off our cell phones and said, OK, what does all this say?  Mostly we looked for streams of similar comments and collected them into little pools.  Then we tramped through the pools, looking for related ideas, testing them for compatibility, and eventually we saw a few big lakes emerging.

Second, name your lakes!  It was the poet W.H. Auden who is quoted as saying, “How can I know what I think until I see what I’ve said.”  Take the time and make the effort immediately if you can, to write one-sentence descriptions of the main collections of information.  Not one-word descriptions.  It’s too easy to put down Communication  or Leadership, but those are topics, not whole thoughts, so put down in one complete sentence (that means a subject and a verb) what you believe the larger collection of information is saying to your organization.  For LST, our list looked something like this:

  • LST needs a new financial model, including a fund raising strategy and more predictable operations.
  • LST needs a growth model with a good leadership model that will carry it through future transitions in leadership
  • LST has a big database issue that needs to be solved
  • There is great opportunity for LST in the U.S., including expanding FriendSpeak and expanding to other churches.
  • LST needs to improve how we communicate with and serve our host churches.
  • LST needs to develop closer partnerships with U.S. sending churches.
  • Marketing of LST   (By this time, we were so brain dead, that we didn’t do a whole sentence!!)

Third, take it to your board!  We took this list to our board but did NOT show it to them at the beginning.  Remember, they had received all of the raw data prior to this all-day meeting, so they came with their own picture of what the data said.  We went through the whole exercise again of following streams and looking for lakes until we got to the end of the day.  Only at that point did we bring out the synthesis that the Leadership Team had developed.  In our case, with just slight modification of wording, the Board of Directors came to the same conclusions as the Leadership Team.  It was almost an AHA! Moment when we put the two lists side by side—and very affirming.

If you come out with two very different lists, then you’ve got one more step, and that is to get your board and your leadership team on the same page.  It might take a joint meeting to discuss why one group’s lakes don’t seem as important to the other group. Don’t stop until there is consensus.

Finally, the Executive Director or the one leading this strategic planning process must sit down and begin writing what will become the final version of the objectives for the strategic plan. 

The objectives become the outline for the rest of the document, so again, be sure and write in complete sentences.  In addition, the final version of the objectives document should include not only the main objectives, but the essential tributaries that flow into them to give a complete picture.  For example, look at LST’s first objective in its final form:

1. To create an inclusive financial model that will achieve the following specific goal

     A.  Both income and expenses are more predictable

     B.   Annual cashflow variations do not require use of credit

     C.   New revenue streams are created

     D.   A fund raising strategy is developed, along with other strategies, resulting in a fully funded, sustainable, growing ministry.                      

And finally again, your board needs to have a look at what you may think is the final draft of the objectives until they are ready to sign off on it.  There is no reason to write one more word until this initial document is finished and approved.

Next:  When your “Objectives for the Strategic Plan” document is finished and approved, then the real work begins.  How are we as an organization going to meet these objectives?

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Strategic-PlanningThis series might be called a series of “reality posts” since we are following LST in real time through its strategic planning process.  To see earlier posts, go to the Categories drop down box and find the Strategic Planning Series.  

As I reported in the last blog in this strategic planning series—which was about 90 days ago—LST sent out over 9000 surveys to all its different constituencies in order to help us know how to plan for the future.  We received about 15% of the surveys back and if each survey averaged 50 questions, then we are talking about approximately 70,000 bits of information for us to analyze.

The ease with which you can get useful information out of your surveying depends primarily on two main factors:

A good online survey tool like www.surveymonkey.com will make the task much easier. 

  • A good tool itself provides some basic analysis of the captured data.
  • The data analysis must be presented in both table and graph forms.  You need it in both because different people in your organization process information differently.  Your accountants will love the tables with all their numbers, but your public relations people will often understand the graphs much faster.  Your board members will likely have different ways of processing information as well.
  • Filters should be available to further refine the data.  For instance, in LST’s Donor Survey, we asked “Have you personally done LST either out of the country or through FriendSpeak?”  This question would seem to require a simple Yes or No, and would result in a percentage of Yes’s and No’s, but because of other questions that we asked, we could find out how many men vs. women said yes, how many of those who said no contributed over $100, and much more.  Your online tool must allow for sorting and filtering your bits of information.

The demographic questions you build into your survey are the second big factor in making your information easy to understand. You only get out of a survey what you ask!

  • If your survey is 50 questions or less, probably the first 7-10 questions should be the demographic questions that are important to you, i.e., the categories that could be important for sorting the answers. Here were our questions for our donor survey:
  1. Gender?
  2. Age?
  3. Average household income?
  4. Size of home congregation?
  5. Have you ever done LST?
  6. How many non-profits do you support?
  7. What has been your single largest contribution to LST?
  8. Largest annual contribution?
  9. What prompted your most recent contribution?

What these questions have in common is that they are going to provide sorting and filtering categories for all of the remaining questions in the survey.

In this particular survey, there are a total of 25 questions.  After these first nine demographic questions, the remaining ones are mostly satisfaction or preference questions:  Example:

  • On a scale of 1- 5, how satisfied are you with the way your donation is used by LST,” and
  • When giving to LST, how do you prefer to contribute?”

Inevitably, you will discover that you failed to ask one demographic question that you really needed to ask.  We got all of this information back but realized that we could not separate our regular donors to our general fund who have given to us perhaps for years from those donors who had only given once to support a particular worker, often one of their family members.  The difference between these two types of donors is huge—and we simply failed to ask the one right question that would allow us to separate them in our analysis.

And, finally, you are going to need to let many eyes look at the results if you truly want to understand what your surveys are saying.  We gave all of our staff and all of our board members complete access to all of the raw data online, so that they could see everything, sort and filter the numbers as they wanted to, and then we asked for them to tell us what they saw as well.

One tip:  you can be more open with the data if the surveys themselves are anonymous.

Next, we’ll talk about actually beginning to draft the strategic plan.

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