We were excited to see Graham Kenney’s Harvard Business Review article “Six Steps to Making Your Strategic Planning Strategic.” He hits on one of the common issues we see clients struggle with in their strategic planning work—writing plans that serve as a laundry list of all the work an organization performs, neglecting to specify a strategic path forward. His six steps describe some of the essential work we also advise clients undertake. Because the article is written with a private sector user in mind, we translated Kenney’s content into something we hope will be useful to public and social sector organizations as a compliment to his article.

Step One: Recognize your dependencies. Kenney suggests an organization identify every key stakeholder and their role, which sometimes can be multiple. For example, in a school district, teachers are employees but they are also customers of many of the district’s services—information technology, data analysis, professional development supports, and the like. This stakeholder map serves as the foundation for the work

Step Two: Identify your target customer. There are numerous customers at the public sector level and choosing one may prove to be difficult. Public and social sector organizations often face a long list of mandated activities they must perform. A school district can’t decide to stop educating high school students because they feel they want to specialize in elementary and middle schools where they are having more success. We suggest developing a tiered customer list and prioritizing your efforts according to the tier.

Step Three: Work out what your organization wants from each stakeholder. As Kenney suggests, organizations tend to think about what they can do for their stakeholders to satisfy their needs, neglecting what the organization needs back from these stakeholders to survive and thrive. As you enter your strategic planning work, consider the expectations that need to be met by your staff, board, partners, funders, oversight or authorizing agency, and the community you serve.

Step Four: Identify what these stakeholders want from you. We find that our clients focus their planning efforts on this step. However, resistance to change based on these collected data points, or dismissing data as biased or incomplete, can derail the group from truly capitalizing on the valuable insights even imperfect data might provide. Before you collect data, proactively agree as a team on the methodologies, acknowledge the limitations of the data, and set boundaries on what you must accept as compelling evidence to address.

Step Five: Strategy design. Succeeding on this step can be summed up in one word—focus. The complexities of a target customer in step two come to bear again in this step. You can’t necessarily select one target customer in the public and social sectors. But not every customer identified in step two must be addressed in the strategy design. Focus on your highest priority target customer needs. Invest time in innovating and growing the work on these priorities and consciously decide where you will let present trends continue until other successes are achieved.

Step Six: Continuous improvement. Writing a plan doesn’t translate into change unless you consciously implement the work. A plan sets the horizon line but it can’t fully predict the future. Instead it gives you a place from which to start a series of hundreds of small and large decisions that must be explored consciously, continuously, and formally as more information becomes known to the organization. [See our page on UPD’s specific continuous improvement practices for more detail on step six.]