Why so many duds?
Not because the participants aren’t dedicated and committed to their work. Not because they lacked a commitment of time. In fact, many of the duds were two day affairs. And certainly not because they lacked fantastic facilitation…. OK, stop laughing.
The reason seems to be more about the failure to do some strategic thinking about the organization BEFORE they do the strategic planning.
If that sounds daunting, it isn’t. Remember, I said that this is strategic thinking. And there are easy steps to prepare everybody for that conversation. It is through good conversation that boards can accomplish their greatest achievements. Talking together and building consensus. It seems to be a lost art in these days of sound bites and instant everything.
Here are 10 questions that might help your board with their preparation for a meaningful strategic planning session. There is not a single correct answer for any of them. And if you as a staff person do all the answering, the idea of a conversation is lost.
I suggest you send participants the list of questions prior to the meeting with sufficient time for them to think about the topics. Don’t ask them to write answers. Don’t ask them to be prepared to talk about everything. Just mention that these questions might suggest topics that will inform the discussion about future planning. And you want to devote some meeting time to talking about them prior to the actual planning meeting.
You will likely want to tailor some of the questions to fit your organization’s specific situation. These questions are to give you the idea of how to stimulate good discussion. They are not a test to see how much your devoted volunteers know, and you certainly don’t want to embarrass them.
Another good outcome of this type of exercise is that those board members who are newer additions to the board probably don’t know as much about your work as those who have served for several years. This becomes a great opportunity to share history. To highlight great and challenging events and outcomes. And to realize that even the best laid plans don’t always work. The important issue is what you learn from your history.
So here are 10 questions that should stimulate good conversation at any board meeting, but especially in preparation for developing some strategic plans.
1 – What is the most significant accomplishment of our organization thus far?
Some may give a financial answer. Many will highlight your program achievements. If you are a relatively young organization, just being in business for a while will be it. The value of this question is that it starts the conversation on a positive note. And a quick response from several participants will undoubtedly show quite a variety of responses.
2 – What is the real strength of our organization?
This is always an interesting question. I regularly hear that the real strength is the board of directors. Well, isn’t that a modest reply. Then some will say it’s the staff. While these two groups may be part of the strength, I would worry a bit about the response. Your programs and services, in support of your mission, should be your real strength. Do your wonderful board members remember the mission statement? If it’s too long they won’t even be able to paraphrase it. Make it easy for them and they’ll have great answers to this question.
3 – Describe the services of our organization.
This is often a home run question. Everybody knows something about what you do. And by hearing from lots of folks on this one you get a very positive picture of all aspects of your work. And of course, how busy you all are, too!
4 – Describe our organization of three years ago.
This is a celebratory question that should make everybody feel the progress you have made. Even in tough times, your work will probably have become more focused, more cost-effective and more efficient.
5 – What obstacles will our organization face in the future?
Here’s a great opportunity for those who see the glass as half empty to speak out. We need a few who challenge the optimists of the world, and they provide for a healthy debate. Naturally there are some expected challenges in everybody’s work, so don’t focus on the already known issues. Try to position this question in view of the more external or even global issues we face in today’s world. Your visionary thinkers will have pondered this one and can probably come up with items nobody else would have mentioned. More fuel for good conversation.
6 – If you could change one think about our organization, what would it be?
This might be a trigger question. You really don’t want a collective moan about things that aren’t going well today. The idea is to raise the level of consideration to the higher plateau of doing the right things rather than doing things right. If possible, select the first respondent who can think big rather than the micro-managers who want to change one policy or one activity. You may even need to seed the idea with one of your stalwarts to keep the discussion positive.
7 – What will it take to achieve our desired success?
This may bring about a more detailed discussion about money and people. That’s probably OK if the previous questions have created an atmosphere of governance level talk rather than management level issues. Of course it takes money and people. The question should ask how to address those needs rather than how many people or what the budget impact will be.
8 – How will success impact our organization?
Here again the quick response may be about money and people. But the more important issue of what is the scale of our work is the critical theme. Does it mean some activities and programs must stop? Does it mean that we change our service area? How much can we expand? What would increased public awareness mean to our work? This could be a fun discussion of what it means to be in the limelight. Have some creative imagining here.
9 – How effective is our board?
If the conversation has been open and discussion engaging everybody, this question may not need much response. Boards that don’t make time to talk together will have a hard time with this one. And it is usually because they aren’t very good at building consensus. A vote doesn’t build consensus. In fact, it may actually divide a board. So maybe the question should be how effective has this type of discussion been for our organization. I often ask that at the end of my facilitation and find that there is great enthusiasm and excitement about the discussion. And that doesn’t mean that everybody agrees. In fact, it may be stimulated by the fact that some honest differences have finally surfaced.
10 – How do you evaluate your performance as a board member of our organization?
How about making this a silent question? I find that most board members are too hard on themselves. There is no benefit in making them feel guilty. At the end of a good discussion it’s time to praise their participation, their good thinking and their willingness to address tough issues. So maybe there are really only nine questions for you!!
It may not surprise you to find that good discussions result in a tremendously engaged board. And that engagement leads to better financial success, better programs and better attitude for all.
If strategic planning is an every-few-years activity no wonder it doesn’t sell well. Make the goal strategic talking.
It’s much more fun!
Here are couple books I recommend reading on this very topic.
The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure
Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age
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