Your strategic plan is coming to an end and you are facing the prospect of creating a new one. After initial discussions, you find that some board or staff think that the expiring strategic plan is still relevant and why not refresh it instead of starting again? Sound familiar? Sound tempting? At Aurora, we are often asked to help an organization refresh their expiring strategic plan for the coming years. Here are the questions we ask to help an organization decide if refreshing their expiring strategic plan is the right course of action.
Why is our expiring plan still relevant?
Usually, an organization is considering a refreshed plan rather than a new plan because the expiring plan still feels relevant in some way. A strategic plan is intended to be accomplished in its timeframe. If you’ve reached the end of your strategic plan and it still feels relevant, then something might be amiss. One common situation is that your organization simply didn’t accomplish everything it planned. Maybe you bit off more than you could chew from the start. Or, something changed and you didn’t have the capacity you expected to see the plan to completion. If this is the case, you might consider granting yourself an extension on your expiring strategic plan rather than refreshing it. Another common situation is that the expiring strategic plan is so broad that it is always relevant. As Sarah says, “A plan that is always relevant is never timely.” Whether you refresh or redo your plan, try to make it more specific and accomplishable.
How have we decided it is still relevant?
Strategic planning is often the time when an organization gets together to think big about where they are and where they are going. An expiring strategic plan may feel relevant until you sit down with others and start digging in. Meetings that are intended to quickly refresh a few things in the expiring strategic plan can escalate into full-blown strategy reconsideration if everyone has not already agreed that the expiring plan is still relevant or have not had the time to consider if it is. An organization that realizes they need a new strategic plan halfway through a refresh will have to backtrack, which creates frustration.
What is our motivation for refreshing rather than starting again?
Strategic planning is hard work that requires mental, physical, and emotional energy from the participants. A good motivation for refreshing a plan is the desire for efficiency and relevance. Board and staff have a limited amount of time and many demands. “Why go over things again that are already decided?” A dark motivation for refreshing also exists: apathy. “These plans are not worth a lot of time and refreshing will take less time than starting fresh.” In our experience, refreshing a strategic plan well can take just as much time as starting fresh. If your motivation feels a little like apathy, consider what your organization can do to make strategic planning more worthwhile.
What is still relevant? What needs refreshing?
The success of a strategic plan depends on more than the words on the page. If people do not understand what the strategic plan means or are not committed to following through, then a plan will fail. If the content of the strategic plan feels relevant, then perhaps refreshing everyone’s understanding of the plan and building new commitment to it will keep the organization moving forward. If everyone understands and is committed to the plan, then refreshing the content will be most important.
Where should we focus our planning energy?
We firmly believe that getting an organization together for a day or two every 3-5 years to think big picture and build shared commitment is time well spent. But, not everything needs to be reconsidered every 3-5 years. Your strategic plan refresh can build on the last plan in a way that is productive for the organization and energizing for the participants. Many strategic planning processes include a mission review in them. If you just reviewed your mission 3 years ago, you don’t need to spend valuable time on this. If you did a large environmental scan last time, maybe you should focus on something else this time. If your strategies are still relevant, spend more time on refining the tactics and implementation planning for the coming year.
In our hard won experience, three things help a strategic plan refresh go well.
1. Agree on what a refresh means.
Make sure everyone is on the same page about what will be considered and what won’t during the refresh process. One of our clients had the board consider and approve a refresh during their annual retreat before we started the project. They agreed that all the strategies were still relevant and would only be “cleaned up” a bit – removing strategies that had been accomplished, combining strategies that were now related, and word-smithing. With this in place, moving forward was quick and easy.
2. Spend more time reflecting on the past strategic plan.
Often during a full strategic planning process, a lot of time is spent thinking about the future. A refresh is a great time to be reflective about the plan you are refreshing. You have already lived with it for a number of years. How has it gone? What have you learned? What will be needed to move forward? These insights will be important for refreshing your plan.
3. Prioritize implementation planning.
Implementation planning is always the key to accomplishing strategy. In a strategic plan refresh, you have an opportunity to spend more energy on good implementation planning at the staff and board level. You could try a new way of implementation planning, bring more people together to do it, or spend more time on a specific initiative that needs a lot of TLC to get moving.