Strategic planning for a larger organization can be challenging at best, and terrifying at worst. There are many ways to get it wrong—ways that may seem faster and easier, but without real benefits. We heard of an organization with several hundred employees whose CEO wrote the strategic plan himself in one day, then presented it to the board. He got their buy-in, but at what cost? Even if he makes a special effort to communicate what he created to his team, who will be inspired by it? Who will feel the plan captures the organization’s real problems? Who will follow a leader who didn’t lead? Gaining early buy-in for strategic planning is crucial for ensuring follow-through.
Also read: Creating presentations to get permission from leadership
To do strategic planning right, you must listen to the voices of all key stakeholder groups, even—and perhaps especially—if you can’t ensure their opinions will be followed. We recommend taking these five strategic planning actions to increase buy-in and the likelihood of the plan’s success:
Talk to a wide selection of people in the organization to start.
You can’t include everyone on the strategic plan’s working team unless you have a conference room as big as your local theater. But you can talk to people who represent all parts of the organization. In one strategic planning project ThoughtForm worked on, we talked to a security guard, a receptionist, the CEO, half a dozen board members, an ad-hoc team charged with changing culture, and twenty or so staff members with titles big and small.
Obtaining early buy-in for strategic planning can mean more than just getting folks to sign on. Our goal was to understand where the organization should be heading, and it worked. Everyone we talked to taught us something. Everyone. The themes were consistent, and people were happy to be consulted. Some of the people we talked to were moved almost to tears. “Do you usually talk to people like me when you’re doing strategic planning? I’m so happy to be asked to give my opinion.”
Which organization’s strategic planning do you think is generating positive buzz—our client’s, or Mr. Lone Wolf’s? Which organization’s employees do you expect are invested in the final plan, listening for the themes they contributed to surface? And which organization’s staff will be ready to work as a team to reach the plan’s goals?
Talk to people outside the organization, too.
On that same project, we talked to a representative from an outside group whose support is directly connected to the organization’s success. We also talked to no-holds-barred critic who knew the organization well, and the head of a company in the same field who used to work at the original organization. Through these conversations, we gained robust insights we would’ve missed if we’d talked only to insiders. The themes raised were very similar to the themes we’d already identified, and we helped create a network of friends to support the organization’s success.
At key milestones, take your work back to your stakeholders for input.
Remember, we didn’t promise to make strategic planning easy. We only promised to help make it successful. Good strategic planning takes a long time. Build time into the working team’s schedule for lots of reporting back, listening, and synthesizing. That means taking your work up to the generals as well as down to the foot soldiers. Both groups need to understand the process and believe that the planning team is focusing on what matters. Task your core team with managing these discussions within their circles of influence. They’ll need to defend and support the plan once it’s in place, and there’s no better way to prepare than to develop good communication muscles early on.
Use visual explanations when possible.
Visual tools aid conversations. A heat map of themes that have surfaced over the course of the project. The flow of tasks through different departments. A timeline of proposed changes. These visuals don’t have to be fancy; they can be hand-drawn, as long as they’re clear. Even a low-fi visual can help your audience understand what you’re saying and respond to it, because it’s more engaging than a wall of text.
When your strategic plan is complete, consider creating a visual explanation of the main ideas and milestones to help teams remember it. Studies show the biggest problem with strategic plans is that they’re easily forgotten. So why not make it easy for people to keep your plan in sight and top of mind by creating an inspiring visual? Employees can pin it up at their desks. Clients, media, funders and other external audiences can use it to quickly understand your mission and approach. And you can even include it in your annual report.
Working to obtain buy-in for strategic planning is about the journey.
It took a long time, and it wasn’t easy, but you’ve created a robust strategic plan. Congratulations! When you’re ready to share it with others, tell the story of the journey that brought you here. The plan represents a journey you and your organization will be taking together in the future. But that journey began when you engaged your stakeholders in conversations about the future.
Case in point: The board of a local social services organization was resistant to making a name change recommended by its staff. The organization’s mission had broadened somewhat, which made the name change advantageous. And more importantly, staff had heard that some clients in the community felt the current name was a barrier to using the organization’s services. As part of their strategic planning process, the organization interviewed over 30 current and prospective clients. They unanimously communicated feeling disempowered or ashamed by the organization’s existing name. Some even cited examples of friends who should use the service, but wouldn’t because of the name’s associations. When they recommended the name change to the board as part of the strategic planning process, the staff included the voices of these clients in the story they told about the organization’s journey. The board accepted the new name they recommended without argument.
The input and buy-in you gather along the way don’t only inform the development of a solid strategic plan. They also make it much more likely that those in the highest levels of the organization and those in the trenches will get behind it.
Up next, Keeping stakeholders informed: Why project reports matter