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Techniques to Overcome Constraints in Strategic Planning: Questions, clustering, and prioritization

Given the time that the Board can dedicate to strategic planning - 8 hours is typical from start to finish, including a review of the vision and mission – creating clear goals is often constrained by time and energy. This is where keeping the number of strategic goals to a minimum becomes essential.

When you have too many goals, achieving them all is impossible. Adopting three or four clear, concise goals that reflect strategic priorities is more impactful than six to eight non-specific goals.

Three to four goals keep the team focused, are easy to manage, and ensure it doesn’t spread its energies across too many fronts.

Having said that, choosing three to four goals willy-nilly isn’t effective. Care must be taken to choose the right goals and craft them so that they are broad enough to be inclusive and specific enough to be achievable. Choosing the right strategic goals is hard work. It’s a balance between strategies, priorities, and impact.

The RIGHT Goals are Aligned with your Vision, Mission and Values

One of the best things about Strategic Planning is the ideas that arise: the uncovered opportunities and the various perspectives explored. Each has “nuggets’ that can be mined to move the organization forward. So how do you choose the right ones? How do you know which ones are best for the next five years?

Ask yourselves the following questions:

  • Which moves us toward our vision and mission most effectively?

  • Which reflect our current realities and future aspirations and are most impactful within our community?

  • Which strengthens our organization and creates long-term sustainability?

  • Which aligns best with our organizational values and mandate?

  • Which will inspire, engage, and empower our team to do their best work?

  • Which is most needed in our community? Amongst our stakeholders?

Choosing the RIGHT goals:

You can do it formally by pre-establishing an evaluation criteria matrix that helps you enter each idea into the matrix and rate it based on the top 5 desired outcomes (see the questions above). These criteria could be weighted and assigned “scores” by each Board Member based on the criteria question, with the top 3 goals receiving the best score for the strategic plan. With time constraints in place, this is often difficult to do.

A less formal and equally powerful approach is to allocate time to “clustering” the results presented and finding commonalities. These commonalities clearly define each goal's critical elements and provide the depth required to assess each option. For example, the group may develop results that span marketing, program development, community engagement, and fundraising. Ten ideas may be listed in each of these categories, many overlapping.

Imagine each of the boxes below is a sticky note written by a planning participant and clustered into a general category of “funding.” As each idea is presented to the group, read them aloud and get clarification from the writer. The clarification increases understanding and enables the notes to be assigned to themes (A, B, C, D, E). Check out the example below.

As you can see, there are five themes arising out of the funding cluster:

  1. Grant Based – find more $$ (3)

  2. Subsidized staffing opportunities (1)

  3. Position as a community leader = increased awareness = increased funding opportunities (3)

  4. Seek business / corporate sponsorships for specific projects/needs (3)

  5. Strengthen relationships with funders (4)

  6. Diversify funding streams (social enterprise, fee for service, etc.) (5)

At the end of the clustering process, two things occur:

  1. There are 1 or 2 critical priorities identified that inform goal setting (highlighted above)

  2. There will be one or two “themes” that combine well to create a comprehensive and general goal (C and D) and (E and A).

The great news is that this clustering process enables you to assess ideas across critical areas (marketing and community outreach, programming, board development, etc.).

Once you understand the key activities in each cluster, overlapping activities can be assessed to see if they stand alone or need to be part of one of the larger themes. Consider those ideas that overlap categories (funding, marketing, etc.) as goals as they serve multiple purposes (i.e., community leader impacts financing, marketing, community engagement, and board and volunteer recruitment).

Prioritizing Goals to Confirm the RIGHT Goals

To further hone down your final goals to 3 or 4, do a prioritization exercise where each participant chooses the top 3 goals (use dots) that in their opinion, align best with the organizational vision and mission and will result in the most significant impact. Once you’ve counted the dots, confirm that the group can get behind the top priorities and discuss the various perspectives if a disagreement exists.

Choosing the right priorities at this point will increase engagement, ensure everyone is onboard, and ensure everyone feels their voice has been heard. Next, translate those priorities into clear goals, which you can read about in another blog post: "Non-Profit Goals Unleashed: Connect Goals and Objectives for True Success."

This clustering and prioritization process is a quick and easy way to capture and clarify ideas, explore themes, and ultimately prioritize those essential ideas, moving the organization forward. Try something simple to see how it goes, then apply it to larger, more critical conversations.

Let us know how the clustering exercise works for your team or how it has worked with past groups. Can't wait to hear your thoughts.

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