Lessons for Successful Strategic Planning: Organizing for a Plan that Leads to Action

In a previous issue of the Economic Development Navigator, guest contributor, Kate Howe provided insight on How to Incorporate Design to Maximize Impact for strategic planning. Kate articulates a common problem with strategic planning: frustration when a plan or program doesn’t get traction that leads to implementation, “When, after countless hours of research, analysis, consensus building, and writing, a report gets filed away on bookshelves and never comes to life as envisioned.” Kate goes onto explain that a cause for this is when communications and marketing are viewed as afterthoughts to the planning process. She then goes on to lay out critical lessons for integrating communications and marketing into the strategic planning process in order to create actionable, successful plans. She calls this “an audience-centered design and communication effort” and illustrates its use and success through the case of a recent strategic planning process for Maine’s forest products industry known as FOR/Maine (Forest Opportunity Roadmap/Maine). FOR/Maine is “a cross-sector coalition working to diversify the state’s wood products businesses, attract capital investments, and develop greater economic prosperity for Maine’s rural communities.”1

Camoin Associates along with partner firm Innovation PolicyWorks was part of an effort that included Kate’s firm, Better Yet Studio and the Maine Development Foundation, the lead partner for overseeing the plan process. Camoin’s role with Innovation PolicyWorks was to work with the leadership team to pull together results from the process into a prioritized work plan for implementation. Kate is spot on and there is another critical component to the strategic planning process that leads to successful implementation: organizing for the planning process. FOR/Maine established a well-organized process that led to a prioritized plan that immediately transitioned to implementation.

Strategic planning for economic development is difficult. It involves many different inputs from many different people around complex issues. The FOR/Maine process offers key lessons. Take the time to design a purposeful process and structure for the development of the plan. Create a clear scope of what the desired outputs from the planning process will be. This will help align participant expectations with the process. Establish teams with clear roles and responsibilities for the process. This includes a leadership team that will oversee the entire process and transition the process to implementation; advisory teams responsible for providing insights on specific topic areas or components of the plan; a communications team for keeping participants, stakeholders, and the public informed; and staffing and/or professional consulting to perform the work of the process and resource the participants. Successful organizing for strategic planning also requires establishing a process schedule and sticking to it. This is essential so that participants know what is expected from them for a commitment and for how long. Far too many strategic planning processes drag on for too long with unclear expectations leading to fatigue and disengagement by participants.

The FOR/Maine strategic planning process exemplified these organizing foundations. It was led by a core leadership team made up of criterial stakeholders across the state from industry, R&D, federal, state, and local government. They were responsible for setting the vision, understanding the challenges and opportunities, and setting priorities for goals, strategies, and actions. They met regularly and were kept on time and on task by a chairperson. The process also utilized multiple advisory teams. These were organized by core issue/topic areas including global markets, wood supply, transportation, energy, emerging technologies, and stakeholder engagement. The advisory teams dove deep into data and information and synthesized for use in the planning process. For support in getting the work done FOR/Me used the services of a lead organizing and project management partner, the Maine Development Foundation who has a long-track record of leading successful initiatives in Maine as well as guidance from outside consults including Camoin Associates and Innovation Policyworks to provide targeted expertise and skills in formulating an action plan.

By committing to organizing for the strategic planning process FOR/Me was able to keep a complex project moving, integrate lots of analysis, and develop priorities among a diverse network of stakeholders. The results are already occurring as the plan is being implemented. Two companies have already received a combined $1.5 million in challenge grants from the Maine Technology Institute (MTI) and “the challenge grants are an offshoot of MTI’s collaboration of the Forest Opportunities Roadmap (FOR/Maine) Initiative, which is backed with funding from the federal Economic Development Administration and Department of Agriculture”.

For further resources on strategic planning for economic development see the Camoin’s resource page on strategic planning: https://www.camoinassociates.com/strategicplanning.  I created and instruct the professional course on strategic planning for the International Economic Development Council. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach out to me at jim@camoinassociates.com.

[1] https://www.mdf.org/program-partnerships/for-maine/https://formaine.org/

[2] http://www.mainebiz.biz/article/20190410/NEWS01/190419993/mti-awards-$15m-in-challenge-grants-to-two-emerging-forest-tech-companies

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