Organizations use strategic planning because they want to be sustainable. Sustainability in this context means planning for an organization’s continued existence and growth. Whether we are concerned with our organization or the planet, if we let things continue ‘as is,’ allowing the winds of change and external forces to blow us wherever they will, we will be ensuring our own self-destruction.
Russell L. Ackoff, a pioneer in management education and one of the founders of systems thinking, created interactive planning and idealized design. Interactive planning is a model for strategic planning with principles that overlap with, and could benefit, the sustainability movement. The Blue Door Group recently used interactive planning to assist our local food cooperative with their strategic planning process, and wanted to share some of what we learned.
Five keys to effective planning:
1. Build on assets
Your organization is made up of people with wisdom, experience, and know-how. A great place to start with your planning is unearthing the assets you already have. At the food cooperative, we found members with community organizing know-how, staff with grocery buying expertise, and board members with cooperative finance skills. We depended on all of these assets to guide the planning process.
2. Build buy-in
By engaging a wide range of stakeholders and voices from all levels of your organization in your strategic planning process, you build buy-in and ownership around the strategic vision and changes you hope to make in your organization. This requires deep listening, and an objective ear. Customers may vary in their ideas; customers’ ideas may be at odds with staff input; staff may raise issues management was unaware of; or ideas may seem outlandish, unrealistic, or impossible.
In our work with the food cooperative, we convened groups where members, staff, board, and vendors could talk together about their ideal organization. Each constituency had a voice, but also heard about other constituencies concerns and desires. This process may run more smoothly with an outside facilitator who can draw out ideas, ensure many voices are heard, make connections between ideas, and work productively with conflict. While it is difficult to find complete consensus around the what and the how of building your ideal organization, when staff and stakeholders have been a part of the process, they are more likely to contribute willingly (and even excitedly!) to moving the agreed-upon vision forward.
3. Start with the impossible and move to the possible
Interactive planning asks an organization to imagine its ideal future. Remember when you were a child, and anything was possible? Remember when you could imagine fantastical buildings and machines and got right to work creating them? Remember when your mind was not restricted by questions like: “How will we pay for it?”, “But do we have the supplies we need to build it?”, or “How exactly will it work?” In interactive planning we are asked to harness that child-like creativity and imagination and to dream big to envision our ideal organization. We then take this big, audacious vision and plan how to close the gap between where we are now and where we want to be, with a focus on both immediate and longer-term steps.
At the food cooperative, most participants in the planning process wanted the cooperative to offer healthy food at a more affordable price. Immediate steps like offering a workshop called “Eating Healthy on a Tight Budget” and longer-term steps like researching programs used at other cooperatives to make shopping more affordable for low-income shoppers are underway.
4. The process is the product
Interactive planning asks us to close the gap between the now and our ideal future. Could the strategic planning process be a part of bringing that desired future to fruition now? In what ways could the strategic planning process model or implement some of the proposed changes?
A strategic planning process can be an opportunity to:
- provide staff at all levels a voice in decision-making,
- build community,
- increase your connection with stakeholders,
- talk about difficult issues that are often happening in silos, and
- so much more!
5. Be flexible and dynamic
Interactive planning asks organizations to plan for continuous redesign. This means adopting an attitude of flexibility around the planning process. Even when the strategic plan is “complete,” it is important to keep an awareness that as things change in the market, among your staff, etc., your plan may also have to change. Ackoff encourages a plan that is adaptable and constantly open to revision, based on feedback gained from participants who are fully engaged and who are offered multiple chances for reflection.
A strategic planning process that provides multiple avenues for participation from staff and stakeholders requires more time, more people-power (in the form of consultants or internal staff), and therefore more resources. This kind of process, while more time-consuming and expensive than a typical planning process, creates organizations that are adaptable to change, values internal and external relationships, and can move forward a dynamic, collective vision for the future. And isn’t that more sustainable?
Susanna Gilbertson, MSW is a Founding Partner of The Blue Door Group. The Blue Door Group designs, facilitates, and teaches interactive process for learning and capacity building. Their work focuses on four main areas: Teaching participatory approaches to education and facilitation; organizational capacity building; diversity dialogues and intercultural communication; and community-building and engagement.