What should organizations prepare for, ask themselves — and avoid — before launching a strategic planning process?
Bellwether’s Strategic Advising practice advises leaders and organizations on their most pressing strategic and operational issues. Strategic planning and implementation is one of our core offerings, and we complete many strategic plans each year, in partnership with clients that span all segments of the education ecosystem. We also help organizations answer questions about how to grow high-impact services, innovate to develop new program models, improve less successful work, build a new organization out of a great idea, or pivot in an entirely new direction.
Because not all strategic plans are created equal, Bellwether's Strategic Advising team has advice on what organizations should think about when undergoing a strategic planning process. Here’s what Lina Bankert, Rebecca Gifford Goldberg, Steph Wilson Itelman, Jeff Schulz, and Mary K. Wells had to say.
1. What are the key components of a strong strategic plan?
Organizational strategic plans, when done well, inspire stakeholders to embrace a vision for success, identify common goals, get clear on how to achieve those goals, and advance a method to track those goals. Successful execution requires the organization to regularly reflect on and understand what is working and what isn’t and make course corrections as necessary to stay on track in achieving strategic goals.
Any good plan needs the following components: (1) a clear vision of success, (2) an articulation of the changes that must take place to achieve that vision, (3) strategies and initiatives to drive that change, (4) outcomes and measures that track whether those strategies are being implemented successfully, (5) an aligned organization and staffing structure sufficient to execute the plan, (6) adequate resources planned using a financial model (including both revenue and cost projections), and (7) risks and mitigation strategies.
2. How can an organization get those components? What do they need to do first? What kind of process yields results?
In order to draft a strong strategic plan with those components, an organization must first start with an understanding of their current state. What are your key strengths, challenges, and opportunities? Based on that starting point, what’s possible for the future? During this process, it is critical to clarify the organization’s mission, vision, theory of action, and impact goals. Bellwether can support all of these efforts through interviews of staff and other stakeholders, surveys, and reviews of internal documents, as well as by guiding key stakeholders through the use of design-thinking tools to generate the best ideas.
These plan components won’t come together unless the process supports authentic stakeholder engagement. We believe that the process of bringing relevant leadership, staff, clients/users, and funders together around key decisions is virtually as important as the content of the plan itself.
What does this look like in practice? Key stakeholders must carve out dedicated time for this work and make a mental and emotional commitment to engage. The strategic planning work must be a top priority for the organization for the duration of the process.
We have seen organizations decide to deeply engage a broad set of stakeholders to create an exciting set of priorities, but then not specify how those priorities would be acted upon, nor the investments and fundraising required to do the work. And we have seen organizations that are very thoughtful about the tactics to deliver on a vision, but who create the plan “behind closed doors,” leaving many stakeholders uninspired or unclear how to engage in the work. The best planning processes do both, and this takes time and effort.
3. What are the biggest misconceptions about strategic plans?
A common misconception is that strategic planning is a one-time event that an organization rallies around and then goes back to business as usual. Strategic plans are not blindly executed static documents. In fact, progress against a strategic plan will stall without clear structures to monitor and reflect on progress toward goals and make adjustments as needed. The leadership team should schedule regular step-back sessions to check progress and align on the path forward. Organizations that fail to build this discipline will struggle to achieve their goals.
Another common misconception is that all organizations need to complete a full strategic planning process. In fact, not every organization needs to – or is in a position to do so. We have partnered with organizations on targeted projects that addressed more discrete strategic issues, such as refining the organization’s branding and positioning to best fit local needs, assessing the organization’s “readiness to grow,” developing or refining a theory of action, or determining how to operationalize a set of pre-identified strategic initiatives. If a discrete project is really what requires attention, a full strategic plan may not be a wise investment.
4. What are some of the hurdles and pitfalls organizations encounter in developing and implementing a strategic plan?
Good strategic plans are clear about what an organization will and will not do. Because leaders in education organizations are appropriately mission driven, they sometimes take on as much as they can in service of children, even when an organization is not optimally situated to develop or execute a strategy, program, or body of work. Great strategy happens at the intersection of 1) an organization's core capabilities; 2) demonstrated demand from students, families, teachers, or other key stakeholders and 3) a lack of other organizations and leaders tackling the issue at hand. Too often, organizations make decisions based on only one of these dimensions.
In addition, organizations will face challenges if the strategic plan does not clearly articulate a sustainable organizational structure, financial model, and set of milestones/metrics to assess progress toward implementation. This requires putting the organizational staffing structure in place to deliver on a new strategy, adequately projecting costs, identifying sources of funding, and identifying clear markers to know if the strategy is on track.
Finally, when organizations implement a major strategic pivot, it is important to be able to “learn fast, fail fast, and improve quickly,” as our colleagues at the Carnegie Foundation say. We help our partners and clients engage in cycles of inquiry to test and improve ideas so they can reach the best possible outcomes based on their own learning.
5. How is Bellwether's approach to strategic planning unique?
We think of five key reasons to work with Bellwether:
- We’re a “critical friend” with deep context
We act as a critical friend to our clients, developing content through a collaborative process and pushing their thinking with an independent and deeply informed perspective. This is where Bellwether differs from other outside partners: We are not generalists. Because we work only in education and have top talent in policy, advocacy, strategy, and talent issues, we come to the table with deep context about trends and issues in the field — and with the talent and expertise to ramp up quickly. Clients come to us in part because they don’t want to have to pay for a consultant to get up to speed on the issues that they are facing.
- We use a proven strategic decision-making process
In developing our strategic decision-making process, we adopted the private sector’s best practices, rigorous analysis, and proven approaches, and then tailored them to the cultural norms and specific context of education organizations. We continue to customize our work to meet individual client needs even as we move through an engagement. One of our core values is “tailored excellence” where we take this general approach and then customize to meet client needs. For example, if mid-way through an engagement with us a client is faced with a new opportunity, say, to takeover a low-performing school, when in the past they’ve only started new schools, we can adjust our focus and scope to help them identify whether this might be a good bet for them to pursue.This effective, efficient method consistently yields both a high-quality end product and authentic stakeholder support for core decisions.
- We offer flexible short-term capacity
We wear a variety of hats in our work, often serving as clients’ “arms and legs” on a project. Sometimes clients don’t know in advance which skills will be required to achieve their objectives, or discover they don’t have the necessary in-house talent. We provide additional policy, analytical, financial, and strategic support to activate, accelerate, and sustain momentum.
- We rely on a data-centric approach
Bellwether delivers content based on rigorous research and analysis that is both informed by proven best practices and tailored to the unique operating environment of each client. Our data-centric approach, along with the humility and questioning nature we bring to the work, lends itself well to situations where there are significant internal differences in opinion around the strategic direction of an organization.
- We have an unparalleled network across the education sector
Bellwether works with the most diverse cross-section of education organizations of any consulting group, and our deep and broad network enables us to quickly access expertise and experience on myriad issues. We have strong relationships with the key education constituencies, including traditional school districts, leading-edge charter school ventures, intermediaries, charter management organizations, private school management organizations, district executives, leading reform groups, high-impact education nonprofits, and funders. We also advise large national grantmakers and small, city-based philanthropic efforts. Our unique blend of work gives us exceptional visibility into the on-the-ground challenges of schools and service organizations, while also allowing us to understand and engage with the broader trends shaping the field.
6. Which organizations has Bellwether partnered with to tackle their biggest strategic questions?
We have worked with organizations across the education sector on strategic planning initiatives. Examples of recent clients include:
For a full list of Bellwether’s clients across our teams, check out our website.
To learn more about Bellwether’s Strategic Advising team and how we can partner with you on strategic plans or other work, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.