Tuesday, March 27, 2012


Currently I am advising a client on how to do a strategic plan internally, with only the most minimal involvement from me, the external consultant. It’s an approach that I greatly enjoy, because it is an especially good way to transfer of knowledge and experience, leaving the client in a much better position to work strategically on their own in the future. Yesterday we got to the point of discussing how to develop measurable action items for the plan. Here's the overview of my response:

Once you have agreed on Mission-Based Goals and Supporting Objectives, it’s time to develop measurable action items.

Since you want the implementation of the plan to be the work of everyone in the organization, the best way to assemble a preliminary list of action items is to ask everyone working within in the organization to participate in identifying what need to be done. This involves the people who actually know what is and isn’t being done already, and what might be most effective. Beyond this purely operational dimension, an inclusive process also focuses everyone’s attention on the strategic goals and objectives. Getting people’s attention is the first step in breaking old habits and thinking strategically about new possibilities.

All staff groups and board committees (and other volunteer categories, if they exist) should be asked to come up with action items not only for the objectives that are clearly theirs, but for all of the objectives they think they can contribute to. By ignoring narrow definitions of direct responsibility, this approach strengthens both the plan and the organization directly with a sense of common purpose.

There are different ways to handle this request for action items from staff. Each department could get together and brainstorm, or the manager responsible could start a list and ask for elaboration, or cross-departmental discussion groups could be assembled so that staff can stimulate, encourage and challenge each other.

Of course, the planning committee and/or senior staff, and perhaps the board (for their own action items, not the staff’s), need to review and edit the action items for relevance and effectiveness. They will also likely have to add in some action items; confirm the timing, assign responsibility and project resource requirements; and prioritize them to reflect affordability and achievability.

Whatever method is used to gather ideas from staff, it is important to convey to the participants that they shouldn’t worry that anything they mention will simply be added to their responsibilities. At the end of the process, once the action items are finalized, job descriptions should be reviewed to make sure that they reflect strategic priorities, both by including new tasks and by eliminating less important things. In most nonprofits staff is already working to capacity. The idea is to work smarter, not harder.

Typically a strategic plan is thought of as having a three- to five-year life span. That should be true of the goals and objectives; in fact many of them may endure much longer than that. The action items, however, need to be reviewed every year, as part of annual planning. Once a full year of actions has been accomplished, the situation and needs of the organizations may have changed. The remaining actions may no longer be the top priority. A clear process of renewal through annual planning should be articulated as part of the implementation plan.

Finally, it is often valuable to assemble a plan in two versions, one with the action items, for internal use; the other with just descriptions of the goals and objectives, for public consumption. An extra benefit of this approach is that each version can be refined with reference to the other. Are the action items necessary and sufficient to accomplish the objective as described? Does the description of the objective correspond to the action items identified? This can be a very effective check on the completeness plan.

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