Strategic Planning Processes and Tools

By Don Ardiel

Strategic Thinking

I once asked a project management class, "Where do your projects come from?" Blank stares around the room.

"Are your projects part of an overall organizational strategy? Do you do and manage projects for external clients?"

After a short silence, one student said "I'm sitting at my desk and a pile of files with a project name drops from the ceiling. I look up to see where they came from. I can catch only a glimpse of a hand putting the ceiling tile back into place. That's all. They just land on my desk."

Most students laughed, which was the intent of the student's story, but a disturbing number nodded their heads and said "Yeah, it's the same at my place."

I suggest that an organization that does not share its goals and objectives with its employees is probably not harnessing the power that comes from everyone in the organization being focused on the same goal.

Strategic thinking is about setting goals, analyzing factors that influence your ability to achieve those goals, developing a strategy of how to achieve those goals and implementing plans of action that will result in achieving goals while at the same time optimally managing your resources. It isn't magic; it is hard work, creativity, analytical thinking and discipline.

So what is the relevance to you how your organization figures out where it is going? This is simple to answer.

You are managing a project. You are doing everything you can but you are finding is impossible to get others to commit to do the work by the deadlines. They just don't seem to care. The schedule is slipping, resources are not available and now your Director says that because you have not used up your budget by the end of the fiscal year, the unsent surplus will be reallocated to others who can use it. "If you need more money, we can consider a new budget allocation, but let's try not to do that. It is a real pain." says the Director.

The problem may have nothing to do with your ability to manage the project; the problem may be that you are working on the wrong project.

"It seemed like a good idea at the time." admits the Director.

It is important that the project manager understand where a project is coming from and how it connects to the goals of the organization. Otherwise, how can a project manager analyze the problems being experienced in a project and differentiate internal problem, team conflict for example, from external problems such as lack of executive commitment.


Its not just big organizations either..

Don't believe that strategic thinking and its connection to projects is relevant only to big organizations. Imagine that you are on the Board of Trustees of a small church. "We need to get more people to attend services on Sundays or we simple can't sustain this congregation." says the Chairman. "Suggestions please."

"We could start a youth program. So many of the teenagers who used to attend as children are not interested any more."

"We should focus in the needs of the elderly. Teenagers are not going to increase Sunday collection. Let's face it, proportionately, those over 60 contribute far more to the collection than young people."

"We should be thinking more of the future and consider what we need to support children and young parents."

"Tithing. We need to go back to tithing. You can't be a full member of the church until you commit to donate 10% of your income. "

"We need to be accessible to the handicapped. Our mission says that we should be accessible in every way to everyone. You can't get a wheel chair in any of the washroom."

"These are all valid and good ideas." says the Chairman. "Let's get started working on them."

Different committees start a variety of projects, each project intended to satisfy what that committee believes is needed to achieve "the goal". People volunteer. Resource are spread thin. What happens? Energy is dissipated; initiative peters out. We are in even worse shape than when we started with arguing and blaming over who should have been doing what.

Every organization needs to develop a goal, develop strategies to achieve the goal, plans to implement the strategy and obtains the commitment of all stakeholders to those plans.


Strategic Planning in the Context of Managing and Doing Projects

Let's try looking at this process in the context of the final impact on YOU; YOU spending hours working on projects.

The problem; a new variant of a well known disease has emerged in a southeast Asian country. Traditional treatments have proved unsuccessful. The disease is spreading. Many are sick; some die. Global migration patterns have brought the disease to our country. What do we do?

Health Canada, provincial ministries of health, regional public health authorities, university research departments and individual health care facilities become involved. The problem has many dimensions. In collaboration with all of these stakeholders, Health Canada is responsible for the overall course of action. Following a quickly assembled high level meeting of public health, public information, researchers, epidemiologists and policy makers it is decided that a "virtual" multidisciplinary institute needs to be established very quickly to deal with the issues of this potentially devastating disease. A task force is put together and given one week to create the entire framework for this new institution.

First, what is the mission of this institution. Why does it exist? Is it to provide curative solutions, public health information, manage research dollars for university researchers? Is it an instruction that merely coordinates the activities of all of the other stakeholders in our health care system? With the participation of all of the stakeholders in the health care system, the task force develops the mission for the institution. The task force develops a vision statement. What do they realistically believe the future holds in store and the how the institution relates to that future. The task force needs to establish objectives that clearly describe the goals of the institution so that everyone working on the problem will know when we have achieved the goals.

The task force seconds support staff from stakeholders. Specific strategies are developed that will focus the energy and resources of the institution on the achievement of the objectives. The strategies could include the development of an information network between researchers, healthcare providers and the media. The strategies could include the identification of pharmaceuticals and biologics that would be helpful in fighting the disease; and many others. With these strategies in place specific projects are identified. Looking at the information network strategy, several possible projects could include systems for gathering information directly from health care providers in hospital setting so that epidemiologists, pharmacologists, human biologists and internists have the latest data on the disease. Another project is placing data analysis systems at the hands of researchers so that media can be kept informed of the latest progress of the disease and the measures being taken to arrest, cure and prevent the disease. Another project as part of the information system is monitoring the direct costs that are being incurred as a result of this disease; the curative costs to health care facilities, the cost to university research and public health departments, the cost of the new institution itself. The indirect costs are also being analyzed such as preventative measures including scanning incoming passengers at airports and the cost to the economy.