Strategic Planning – Panning for Gold

Ask anyone who has organized or led a strategic planning process what it was like and you’ll likely hear that it was a lot of hard work but very worthwhile. The written strategic plan represents the visible tip of the proverbial iceberg; all the hard work (data gathering, analysis, stakeholder interviews, discussions, prioritizing, wordsmithing, etc.) hidden beneath the surface.

Reflecting on the effort that goes into successful strategic planning initiatives, and pondering how best to tackle the important yet often overlooked and under-resourced data collection and analysis part of the process, I found myself comparing it to the mythologized process of panning for gold. To the uninitiated it seems like a simple process:  repeatedly swirl a bowl filled with sandy gravel from the bottom of a stream bed to separate the valueless materials (rocks, gravel and sand) from the valuable gold nuggets. In reality, while simple, panning for gold is extremely labour intensive and discovering rock-size nuggets of gold is extremely rare. Successful ‘gold panners’ are searching in areas of high potential and have honed their techniques over time.

Data gathering and analysis is the same:

  • It can be labour intensive.
  • There is a lot of sifting that goes on to find the gems of insight.
  • Success begins with gathering the right data and organizing it in the right formats to reveal the gold.

Because strategic planning focuses on future “Big Picture” outcomes, it is important to collect and review data from both internal and external sources. This encompasses both who you involve as well as the types of data you gather.

The chart below summarizes the who and the what of data collection from both an internal and external lens.

There are many different ways to gather S.W.O.T/P.E.E.S.T data and each method has its strengths and limitations. Usually individual interviews are arranged for key internal and external stakeholders although focus groups and e-surveys can also be effective. Identifying key reports, strategies and publications at local, regional and national levels can help identify relevant trends and highlight opportunities and threats that might impact the organization.

Pulling together service statistics, financial data and satisfaction feedback over 3-5 years is very illuminating although can be extremely labour intensive if data management systems are not integrated and automated. Typically, non-profit organizations will be gathering information on:

  • # of clients served (overall and by program/service)
  • # of staff & staff hours associated with each service
  • # of volunteers & volunteer hours associated with each service
  • Is client satisfaction survey/feedback collected? (yes, no)
    • Average satisfaction rating?
    • Areas of strength?
    • Areas for improvement?
  • Key service delivery challenges from staff and client perspectives
  • Revenue sources – annual and as a percentage of program total (if program funded by single source = 100%, if program has multiple revenue streams then identify the appropriate percentage)
  • Program expenses by key categories (amount and percentage)
  • Unit cost to provide each service

Data gathering and analysis is the equivalent of selecting the high potential search areas in our panning for gold analogy.

The real work begins when board and staff members start to discuss the implications of what the data is showing. Some useful questions at this point can be:

  • What did you notice with respect to the directional trends the organizational data presented (consider both the up and down sides)?
  • What surprised or concerned you about these trends?
  • What implications might this have for your organization’s:
    • Vision, mission, values?
    • Core Services – what and how you do business?
    • Future growth?
  • Which areas require your immediate attention?

These conversations are well worth their weight in gold and enable people to gain a deeper appreciation of the issues, often seeing things from a different perspective. They help show participants how different aspects of the organization impact one another and contribute to a bigger picture. When differences in opinion arise, the conversation can shift to identifying what data has shaped those differing opinions in order to determine what the service implications are and reach consensus about next steps.

I hope I’ve persuaded you that data collection and analysis is a critical part of the strategic planning process. Yes, it requires the right tools, knowledge and expertise to maximize the opportunities for success. And it takes time to sift through those information sources to uncover the small and large nuggets of insight that will shape your organization’s short and long-term future. However, the payoff is a strong, defensible and future-focused strategic plan that everyone in the organization can support.

What data are you using to inform your strategic planning discussions or major decisions? How has it helped you improve your performance?



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