Strategic planning 101: Experts from the Region of Waterloo and Ottawa Community Housing share their tips and tricks
Increasingly, organizations of all sizes are creating their own strategic plans to guide their operations and development. A strategic plan is a document that sets out an organization’s priorities and goals, outlines the activities that are required to meet those goals, and allocates the necessary resources. Many strategic plans also include evaluation metrics, like performance indicators, to assess the organization’s progress.
So how does one go about beginning the strategic plan process? “It sounds a bit funny, but you need to begin by planning the plan,” said Lorie Fioze, Manager of Strategic Planning and Strategic Initiatives for the Region of Waterloo.
“Judging your organization’s readiness is the first step.” When Fioze began working on the Region’s 2015-2018 Strategic Plan, she started by setting out the intentions of the plan, any best practices or lessons learned from previous plans, and what resources the organization had available for the project.
Timelines for strategic plans vary depending on the organization and its goals and deliverables. The Region of Waterloo’s plan is based on a four-year cycle, which corresponds with the Region’s Council term. Ottawa Community Housing (OCH), however, has a 10-Year Strategic Plan.
“We had three-year plans before, but we realized that to achieve a real transformation required a longer time frame,” said Patricia Tessier, Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness for OCH. Both the Region and OCH’s plans also begin with clear Mission, Vision, and Values statements – which are key elements that may need to be updated as a plan develops.
Many organizations work with consultants in the development of their strategic plans, particularly when it comes to gathering data and feedback from stakeholders, clients, or members of public. The Region of Waterloo hired the marketing firm Environics Analytics, for example, to conduct a statistically-sound telephone survey of over 1,200 residents.
“The survey results gave us an idea of what issues we needed to focus on,” said Fioze. “From there we could move into the qualitative stage of focus groups and community meetings.”
Gathering information through surveys, interviews, focus groups and other outreach methods can help shape the intentions of your strategic plan. “The two big themes that emerged from all the people we talked to were that people really wanted to take care of each other, and of the environment – and that informed the plan,” said Fioze.
Similarly, OCH, which surveyed tenants and local agency partners, and conducted meetings with the Tenant Advisory Group and four District-Based Committees, found that respondents saw the housing organization as more than just a landlord. “We learned that success is not just about the home, but that supports are also a large part of the equation,” said Tessier.
When developing a strategic plan, it can be challenging to know what to include and what to leave out. “One of the hardest things was making the plan relevant to everyone, and making sure all the people we consulted felt that their voice was heard,” said Tessier.
To address this, she gathered feedback from staff, making a “word cloud” image of the terms they associated most with the plan. She also created communications tools for community workers to help explain the goals of the plan, and organized several sessions with the Board of Directors to ensure support for key priorities.
Even after a strategic plan is finalized, though, the work is far from done. While both OCH and the Region of Waterloo have released their plans to the public, Tessier and Fioze are still hard at work reaching targets and measuring progress. For example, Fioze organizes regular strategic focus sessions for staff that drill down on a specific topic in the Region’s plan, and brings in keynote speakers for discussions.
While strategic planning is a demanding and time-consuming process, organizations should not be dissuaded by the magnitude of the project. “Long-term strategic plans make sense for housing providers – it’s where we need to go as a sector,” said Tessier.
“Do not be afraid of identifying long-term goals. A strategic plan is not a business plan or a work plan. It is a guide to get your organization to somewhere that you are not at yet.”