The Skeleton in the Closet - Your Strategic Plan

October 31st, 2018

Hanna Lentz-Harry

This might sound weird coming from someone that facilitates a lot of strategic planning sessions, but watch out for strategic planning – it can be a scary trap.

The trap is the promise of change never realized. The vortex of time, money, and visions of change invested into a process, series of meetings, or intensive days that produce little in return. The glossy document that is created and shared victoriously with Board and staff, only to retire to the top shelf and collect dust until next year. Strategic planning can be fantastic but let me be honest – it can also be a waste of time.

When Strategic Planning Works

When strategic planning works, it has the potential to be transformational. Good planning can actually help your organization be more successful and create greater impact for animals, people, and the environment. It can also help you be more efficient, raise more money, spend money effectively, and build a team that is genuinely engaged and productive.

With all of the potential benefits of strategic planning, it is no wonder that it is a popular process. But the promise of planning is only realized when it is done well.  If you really want strategic planning to work, consider these conditions for success:

1.Be prepared to change. A good strategic planning process will require that some things change, otherwise why go through the hassle of planning? These may be big changes, such as shifting defined areas of work, restructuring teams, or changing budgeting, or small ones, like adopting new technology for improved communication. If you are a leader and you are not genuinely willing to change, don’t waste your time on strategic planning.

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2. No really, be prepared to change. Okay, so you are willing to participate fully in a strategic planning process and to make changes, but just the ones you agree with or had wanted in the first place, right? “No, no”, you say, “I’m really open to change!”

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Great – this is what it will feel like: you will need to listen, patiently and quietly to others, even when you are dying to speak up and make your own point. Sometimes you may feel frustrated or anxious about where conversations are headed. You may feel like you have more experience and have been down this road before, but you are willing to get into the trenches with your team to explore and ensure all options are on the table. You will feel your brain and ideas stretch and morph, sometimes in uncomfortable ways, so that at some point you are willing and able to say – that is a good/interesting/valuable idea and I had never thought of that before.  You must be willing to change, not just make changes.

3. Have leadership that is truly, authentically committed to the process. This means commitment before, during, and after the strategic plan is complete. Your leadership team needs to be so committed to the new plan that they are living, breathing, and integrating it into their work going forward. Leaders will be the harbingers of change, and if your leadership team isn’t changing their behaviors, practices and decisions as a result of the plan, no one else will do it either.

4. Have managers that know how to translate planning outcomes into implementation. Building the conditions where teams can effectively implement a plan is a management skill. It will not automatically happen unless it is the responsibility of managers to turn the pages of your strategic plan into day-to-day realities. What does this look like? In the first few weeks after a plan is created, managers are sitting with their teams and mapping out what their work will look like now, and how to successfully make the new plan a reality. It means that the backbone of prioritizing opportunities, making decisions, managing performance, and starting new work, is related to your plan.  If you need some tools, here are a few!

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5. Involve the right people, at the right time, in the right way.  Depending on the size and structure of your organization, you need to think through – really deeply – how everyone, from the Board to your newest staff member – needs to be involved. Every single person should be involved in some way, whether it is in-person for a meeting, feeding back through a survey, reviewing and/or approving materials, or some other mechanism. Bring people along in the right way, at the right time. In the end you won’t just have a strategic plan, you will have a team of advocates behind it, and an organization primed to implement it.

6. And be sure to build a good plan. Obviously, working to implement a bad plan could be the scariest trap of all, and building a good plan is easier said than done. There is an art and a science to building the kind of strategic plan your organization needs. Don’t just use an off-the-shelf template – you are planning strategically, not checking boxes. Find the right help and the right tools – either inside or outside of your organization - to map out exactly what you need in your plan and how to build it.


Think of it this way – your strategic plan is like your organization’s skeleton. It should be strong enough to hold everything up, and it gives your organization’s work its shape and form. But without all of the other bits and pieces that makes the “body” of your organization move, function, and stay healthy, it will sit in the proverbial closet and simply remain a skeleton of what your organization, and your team, could be.

Well That Sounds Scary

A little strategic planning angst might be a good thing, but do not be afraid. Channel that angst into creating a meaningful, robust, and truly useful process for you and your organization.  If you want to raise more money, if you want to make the most of limited resources (money, people, time), and if you want to have the greatest possible impact – you really need to have a solid plan.

Just remember that a plan is only sheets of paper (or digital PDF!) and the only thing that will actually matter at the end of the day is how you built it and what you do with it.