Traditional methods of strategic planning usually involve a few senior leaders disappearing into a proverbial “smoke-filled room” and eventually emerging with The Plan. Dwight Eisenhower famously said, “The plan is nothing. Planning is everything.” Like Ike, I find that the process of planning is often more important than a plan itself—and when you involve all (or most) of your team members and other stakeholders in that process, you’ll find that your organization starts to follow new strategies before you can even get them written up.
Early in my career, I worked for a manager who was a dictator. He was benevolent at times, but he insisted on developing the organization’s strategies his own way. If you saw things differently, you would find yourself pushed to the margins of the organization—if not out entirely. His leadership style created a lot of problems, as you can imagine, but it most definitely resulted in strategies that were rigid and unable to adapt to the organization’s changing environment.
Whether you lead a whole organization, a department, or a small team, you will find a lot of value in using carefully designed planning processes that draw in input from everyone who has a stake in your success. Here are my top three reasons for building robust participation into your planning processes:
1. Participation enriches the results of your planning
As IDEO’s David Kelley has been saying for years, “It’s impossible that the boss is the one who’s had the insightful experience with [the topic at hand].” Including a broad range of perspectives in your planning processes allows you to capture the expertise of people on the front lines. It gives you access to experiences, perceptions, and knowledge that will surprise you.
2. Participation accelerates adoption of new strategies
Participation—particularly when it utilizes a positive, aspirational process—excites the imagination of your staff, supporters, and others who are critical to the success of your mission. David Cooperrider, originator of the Appreciative Inquiry methodology, says that “words create worlds.” The things we spend our time talking about shape our perception of what is real and what is worth doing. As people plan for the future, they immediately begin the journey toward the vision and strategy they are creating. They won’t wait to see the final draft of your plan in a month; the change begins through the planning process itself.
3. Participation builds shared vision like nothing else
Contributing to planning gives participants a sense of connectedness to a bigger purpose—one that binds people together and gets them moving in the same direction. “Vision” is a well-known part of organizational planning, but too often it is the vision of one person (or group) that is imposed on an organization. The fact is that all vision is personal. If you as a leader encourage your team members to develop their personal visions, they can join together to create a powerful picture of what the team as a whole really wants.
When a group of people come to share a vision for an organization, each person sees his own picture of the organization at its best. Each shares responsibility for the whole, not just for his piece. ~Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline, p. 198.
I’m not saying you should make planning a completely democratic process. Organizational leaders are ultimately responsible to boards and donors, and need to be able to make decisions. However, I reject the idea that “top down” and “bottom up” are the two options. What I’m proposing here is carefully designed participation and periodic input from all levels of your organization (here some specific methods you can try). If you do this well, your plans will be more robust, build trust, gain adoption faster, and generate the kind of vision that will draw your organization into its future.
Two final notes before I sign off:
Who you invite to participate is important. If you haven’t done a stakeholder analysis, do one now. If you lead a department or team within a larger organization, your team’s stakeholders may not be the same as those of your organization as a whole. They are also likely to include internal stakeholders from other teams or departments. Once you know who your top stakeholders are, seriously consider including them in your planning process in one way or another.
This is an act of faith. Leaders need to make a commitment that their team’s contributions will help shape your organization’s future. If you conduct a participatory planning process but ignore the results and use your own strategies, you’ll destroy the trust you built and have no credibility next time you ask for participation. It’s inevitable that the strategies you develop as a group aren’t 100% the way you would have articulated them personally, but wouldn’t you rather have a plan that is 80% the way you wanted it, with a team of supporters who are fully behind it?
Question: What’s your experience with participatory planning, either as a leader or a participant? Do you have other reasons why participation is (or isn’t) important?