Avoiding Strategic Planning FAILS

by Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D.


Why is strategic planning so often a waste of time?? When I do talks on strategic planning, this question elicits great descriptions of failures of strategic planning processes, such as:

  • We took 10 leaders off-site and spent a whole day doing strategic planning, but “the plan” then sat on a shelf. We never looked at it again.
  • We planned for changes that made sense but, looking back a year later, most of those changes were never successfully implemented and we don’t know why.
  • We made changes in some areas, but not in others. Were we too ambitious in those areas, or was there a lack of leadership there?
  • We didn’t tackle any difficult issues at our planning retreat. Everyone just keeps doing what they do in their area, and we never gain momentum as an organization.

70% of change efforts fail—why even spend time planning for change?

I hated participating in meaningless planning experiences and I even get upset  hearing about them. Our mission-based organizations can’t afford to waste resources this way!  While conducting a meaningful and productive planning process is challenging, it is necessary to ensure that leaders are leading in the same direction. It is too easy for already-tight organizational resources to be wasted in a nonprofit organization when there’s a lack of clear direction and cohesive action.

Strategic planning can be a great solution for this, but it must be done well. In order to increase the chances that a) the plan will be good and b) the plan will be implemented to great effect, think about the time and energy you devote to the planning process itself.

Even though gathering leaders for a full day meeting is a major commitment of resources, there is really little reason to believe that a one-day meeting will produce a well-considered plan. One day is not enough time to surface, let alone find answers to, important questions. If leaders don’t have enough time to get questions answered, how will they be ready to make big decisions about new directions for the organization?

After years of participating in strategic planning processes as facilitator and participant, I know it’s very important to ascertain the organization’s needs and develop a process designed to help that particular organization gain real momentum.  

PLANNING FOR A PRODUCTIVE STRATEGIC PLANNING PROCESS. MY TOP TWO RECOMMENDATIONS for planning a productive planning process, based on many years’ experience as both a participant and a facilitator of strategic planning processes, are as follows:

  1. Take more time—stretch out the process a bit. Plan to have two retreats, with time in between to give people time to think about what matters most and to give time for getting answers to critical questions before the group makes big decisions.
  2. Use a skilled, external facilitator.  A facilitator who functions outside your organization’s power dynamics can more effectively lead an objective, participatory process.

What to look for in a strategic planning facilitator.  People ask me how to select a facilitator that can produce a valuable planning outcome.  Here are my answers:

  • Clarity of thought and communication. Get a facilitator who thinks and communicates clearly so they can guide your planning process toward a well-considered, coherent, implementable plan that will move your organization measurably forward.
  • Intimate knowledge of nonprofit organizations. It really helps if the facilitator has experience directing nonprofit programs themselves and has intimate understanding of the challenges.
  • Strong interview and assessment skills. In order to facilitate a process that will make a real difference, the facilitator must ascertain, quite quickly through interviews and other mechanisms, what should be the focus of the planning process and what the challenges will be to successful implementation of a plan that will result in a major step forward toward achieving greater impact. Lacking these skills, a facilitator may offer a generic planning process that targets irrelevant areas and, ultimately, fails to move your organization forward.
  • Leadership and strong meeting facilitation skills. Seek a facilitator with strong leadership skills—someone with the ability to be firm, yet gentle.  They must convey respect and high regard for everyone in the room, and for the mission of the organization. If real change is to occur, a facilitator must be able to get permission from the group to challenge assumptions and interrupt individuals or groups in the interest of achieving the planning goals.

You need ENOUGH TIME and a FACILITATOR who is a skilled leader in order for Strategic Planning to make a positive difference.

I would love to hear your strategic planning experiences! Did you have a bad strategic planning experience?


gt headshot pretty smile 2013

If you could use a sounding board to discuss your  nonprofit leadership challenges, let’s talk! 

Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D., Board Certified Coach– executive/ business/ leadership coach

Get in touch at drginny@masteringmission.com or 720-443-5056

This entry was posted in Leadership, Management, nonprofit, Planning. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *