Strategic Planning
Workshop Facilitation

Workshop facilitation plays a special role in ensuring the effectiveness of your strategic planning process. The strategic planning process gets more effective results, in the form of strategies that get enthusiastically implemented, when planning facilitation adds the secret ingredient.

The secret ingredient of workshop facilitation

What is it that avoids the sad result of strategic plans gathering dust on the shelves?


Strategic plans that get successfully implemented are ones that are created, understood, accepted, and committed to by the people who will be held accountable for implementing them, and for working with the people who will be impacted by them.


Before I explain how I think you can do this, let me explain some terms, and how we will use them in this context.

What is strategic planning workshop facilitation?

By workshop I mean a meeting at which a group of people engage in intensive discussion and activity on a particular subject or project.

strategic-planning-workshop

I assume a planning team has been formed from managers, with requisite roles and responsibilities. In the context of strategic planning a workshop is a meeting at which a planning team engages in intensive discussion and activity on what the really big issues facing an organization are. They workshop how these really strategic issues should be addressed to ensure the organization will improve its long run performance, and within manageable levels of risk and resource use.

During a systematic corporate strategic planning process there will be a series of meetings, rather than a single meeting.

Facilitation in systematic strategic planning refers to the practices associated with preparing and conducting meetings that yield the progressive outputs needed to get an agreed written strategic plan. This process outputs that become inputs to the corporate strategic plan include targets, forecasts, analyses of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and consensus on the intended outcomes in the form of key strategic decisions. A most vital output of the whole process will be the signatures of the planning team. These should represent their commitment to the projects required to implement the strategies decided.

workshop-facilitation

Workshop facilitation or planning meeting facilitation is not about leading the managers involved in the planning process. The chief executive officer still has leadership accountability in the planning process even though they may have delegated some facilitation and other support tasks to others.

Facilitators will be independent of the discussion and will curb their own opinions, unless specifically asked for them.

Strategic planning workshop facilitation is like riding a scooter

structured-conversations

Skilled workshop facilitation can help a management team achieve the commitment needed to get requisite strategic plans developed and implemented. How? By using a systematic approach to workshop facilitation that is like riding a SCOOTER!

By this we mean that strategic planning workshop facilitation enables Structured Conversations Offering Opportunities To Exercise Responsibility. S.C.O.O.T.E.R.

A scooter rider needs to make efforts most of the time to keep the scooter moving forward, sometimes the rider can ease off when it is moving under its own momentum, or has reached a downward slope. However it still needs steering towards the intended destination. And it requires the rider or facilitator to maintain balance, so as not to push too far, or lean too far to one side, of the discussion, or the other!

OK maybe I am pushing the scooter too far!

So let's look in turn at the Structured Conversations Offering Opportunities To Exercise Responsibility. First, S.C.O.O.T.E.R.

Structured conversations

A strategic planning workshop should not just be a 'talkfest'. It is not just a chat about the possible future, or some blue sky brainstorming with no real purpose, agenda, or consequences hanging on the outcomes of the discussions.

A facilitated strategic planning meeting or series of meetings is a bit like a seminar. A seminar is a structured conversation usually thought of as a small group of advanced students in a university or graduate school engaged in original research or intensive study under the guidance of a professor who meets regularly with them to discuss their reports and findings. Sometimes it is also simply a meeting for exchanging ideas like a small conference. A strategic planning seminar or facilitated workshop is a structured conversation that has all these connotations, and more.

To ensure that strategic planning workshop facilitation enables the kind of conversations required, certain preparations are needed, as well a certain skills and capabilities on the part of the strategic planning facilitator.

Next we go to the middle part of S.C.O.O.T.E.R.

Offering Opportunities To . . .

If the strategic planning discussions are to achieve their intended purpose, then the CEO and the planning facilitator need to be involved in planning a meeting or more usually a series of meetings that will enable the structured conversations, and offer opportunities for all who need to be involved to participate.

The kind of opportunities available depend on number of things, including-

  • stage of the strategic planning process
  • form of meetings and workshops employed for the process,
  • practices or techniques employed in workshop facilitation, and of course the
  • skills of the facilitator
  • motivations of the participants, and the
  • readiness of the teams involved for this sort of activity.

We will deal briefly with each of these in turn, after we finish with the final aspect of S.C.O.O.T.E.R.

Exercise Responsibility

Another meaning of the term workshop is when it is used as a verb.

exercise-responsibility

Lights, camera, action!

In the world of theatre and movie making to workshop is to present a performance of a dramatic work, using intensive group discussion and improvisation in order to explore aspects of the production prior to formal staging.

Similarly, a planning workshop facilitation can give the flavour of the subsequent activity of management of agreed strategies into place in the real world.

This is another benefit of ensuring that the right people are engaged in the process; meaning the people who will be held accountable for the results of implementing the specific strategies or strategic projects. These are the people who also are responsible for relating them to the ongoing operational reality of the organization concerned.

The planning team and the strategic planning workshops need to include enough of these people and give them a chance to relate to one another over the strategy making process to simulate the actual process of strategic management that will flow from agreement of the strategic plan.

The facilitator as well as the CEO leading the planning team must make sure that the planning team and other managers brought into the process through specific workshop activities realize they are in a sense rehearsing for the real thing. The issues raised, and the judgements made, and decisions taken, all have consequences in and for the real organization.

Strategic planning workshop facilitation involves moving forward with Structured Conversations Offering Opportunities To Exercise Responsibility for the future of the organization.

Now to some details of workshop facilitation.

Workshop facilitation close up

As already stated a number of aspects need to be taken into account for someone to successfully facilitate strategic planning sessions, including the team building associated with the process.

Stage of the strategic planning process

While structured meetings occur at each and every stage of the formal strategic planning process I recommend, as depicted in this diagram.

strategic-planning-stages

The need for and involvement of a skilled person for workshop facilitation varies at each stage.

At the beginning the leading role is played by the chief executive officer (CEO). The CEO must take responsibility for interacting with the governing body to explain the need for a strategic planning process.

The CEO should engage the board, through the chair of the governing, body in setting the key targets and fundamental policies regarding conduct of the organization.

It sometimes happens during the second stage of setting targets, doing forecasts and calculating performance gaps, that important strategic issues surface. These need thorough discussions, and a facilitator can be of considerable service to the planning team at this stage.

It is at the third and central stage of doing the SWOT analysis and beginning to generate strategic options that a highly skilled facilitator can be of inestimable value.

At this stage I strongly recommend opening up the planning discussion beyond the select few in the planning team. The most effective planning teams are composed of the CEO and some immediate reports, for a total of no less than three, and no more than seven managers. However, the SWOT analysis workshop should include at least the next layer of managers. With this larger group, sometimes not experienced at working together in this format, a skilled facilitator can make sure the sessions are really productive.

Once the strategies begin to emerge as the planning team reflect on the outputs of the central SWOT and strategic options workshop, the facilitator can move back into a more background role. Sometimes they may not be needed at all once the decisions become clear toward the end of this fourth stage.

The level of involvement of a trained person for workshop facilitation is depicted in the graphic below.

facilitator-involvement-strategic-planning

Form of meetings and workshops employed for the process

A meeting usually involves participants being together in the same space at the same time and this is the typical context in which strategic planning workshop facilitation occurs.

With the globalization of economies, internationalization of many organizations, facilitated by information and communications technologies (ICT), formal meetings are taking other forms. These can be reviewed according to time and space use.

types-of-meetings

I would suggest that whenever possible the traditional face to face meeting should be the main way of workshopping for developing and managing strategies. I suggest that these meetings have one independent person to facilitate strategic planning session by session for each stage. This does not preclude occasionally having more than one facilitator at say a very large SWOT workshop, just because of the physical wear and tear involved for a facilitator!

As suggested above, when we get to the central SWOT workshop, the planning group can be enlarged to at least encompass the next layer of management, which can easily be around thirty people or more in total. I have run workshops for groups of about eighty!

Workshop facilitation in practice

In broad terms the role of the facilitator can combine aspects of the roles of chairman or secretary. The facilitator role is more explicitly to encourage active participation by all present, and to enable the workshop participants to achieve consensus on the really big strategic issues and how to address them in strategic decisions.

As mentioned above, the role of facilitating a strategic planning process and particular workshops within that process does not have to be carried out by a single individual.

The scope of the facilitation role lends itself to some delegation and cooperation over particular aspects of the work. For example, prior to a planning workshop, perhaps one administrative person may make arrangements for the venue, distribution of papers, and provision for other support such as catering and equipment.

workshop-preparation

During the meeting one staff member may keep time, monitor the agenda, and collect any written responses from participants, while another person may be responsible for recording agreements, and another is more fully engaged with the process of discussion.

Before a strategic planning workshop, the CEO will have made the decision to use workshop facilitation, and made the selection of a facilitator and/or planning assistant facilitators or planning assistants. The CEO may also have decided on an approach or system for conducting the strategic planning process, or may seek advice from the facilitator. In some cases facilitators use a particular approach to strategic planning, such as the Argenti system recommended on this site.

Prior to the strategic planning workshop or workshops, in consultation with the CEO, the facilitator(s) will do the following.

  • Agree the specific find out the purpose and outcomes required from each part of the strategic planning process, and particular meetings or workshops.
  • Establish who will attend as participants, and who needs to be involved in any other capacity.
  • Draft agendas for each workshop or workshop session, and select or design the practical activities to attain the intended outcomes.
  • Communicate with the prospective participants to make the purpose of the process clear, and share the draft process outlines and workshop agendas and revising them if required, and following up on any requests for further information.
  • Brief all participants and staff or consultants and facilitators on their respective roles, and make sure all realize what they are expected to do to achieve the expected results of the process as well as individual workshops, meetings or sessions.

During a strategic planning workshop, facilitators or planning assistants will among other things take at least these actions.

  • Review and remind all of the agenda
  • Monitor time use
  • Support effective processes of group discussion, through encouragement of active involvement of all participants
  • Enable all who are taking part to have ample opportunity to understand what is being said, and to appreciate differing perspective in the group
  • Encourage those present to develop agreement on outputs that make the best use of the range of perspectives evident in the group
  • Open up honest and forthright confrontation of troubling issues without losing courteous and respectful communication and otherwise manage participant behaviour that may foster or inhibit productive discussions
  • Maintain a safe working environment
  • Alert the CEO to any issues that seem to require personal or individual follow-up outside the sessions. This is necessary because strategic planning inevitably leads to some organizational change. And as the possible changes emerge in discussions, individuals concerned can see possible impacts on themselves, and close colleagues. These changes may have far reaching impacts on their careers, and other aspects of their personal situations, and need to be carefully worked through. This is clearly a management responsibility, and not for the facilitator to address in the workshop setting.
  • Help participants to strengthen thinking and problem solving skills
  • Record agreements
  • I also strongly suggest keeping a 'rolling agenda' of unresolved or deferred issues. The facilitator should encourage a collective monitoring of this list to ensure that issues get dealt with at the appropriate point in the workshop, or are at least properly delegated to someone to deal with subsequently. They may also note unresolved issues for later debate.

After the strategic planning workshop, facilitator or other support staff may-

  • Write up and publish the results of the meeting to everyone concerned including those who were not in attendance but need to know the outcomes.
  • Be asked by the CEO to assist in preparation of submissions to the governing body for approval of strategic plans and resource allocations to support the new strategies.
  • Assist the CEO in reviewing the planning process or specific planning workshop or seminar evaluation.

Characteristics of the participants, including readiness of the teams involved for workshop activity.

Workshop facilitation can play an important role in helping managers to come up with a stronger and more coherent strategic plan. This means a plan that has a better chance of success because of the strong consensual support it has from those who framed it.

However we must not expect more of the facilitator than is reasonable. An effective facilitator in a sense owns the process of the meeting, but not the content.

During the individual strategic planning meetings or sessions, it is clear that the CEO, as the owner of the topic of 'strategic plan' should not impose ideas beyond setting out parameters for consideration such as targets and policies from the governing board. They should also avoid imposing themselves on the process itself, having delegated the workshop facilitation to someone else, unless they judge the facilitator has lost control of the process.

However, in a viable planning team, the other participants are not passive. They too have responsibilities for improving the chances of success of the process.

The strategic planning process advocated here is one which requires a certain level of team working prior to starting the process, and in turn strengthens the team during the process. The result is improved chances of effective implementation of the strategic plans developed.

Because plans always unfold in unexpected ways, and the environment of the organisation will change in ways that could not have been anticipated, plan implementation can become very difficult, challenging and stressful. The team responsible itself will come under stress from without, and relationships within the team will also be tested.

So team building is critical to the systematic strategic planning approach adopted here. With the increasing complexity of the external environment, the challenges and opportunities that face the organization are accordingly beyond the capacities of individuals operating on their own.

One of an organization's greatest strengths can lie in facing these challenges and dealing with them constructively in a manner which brings the talents of all members of a work group to bear on these issues.

Working as a team can encourage:

  • Staff to collaboratively identify the critical issues facing them organization and apply co-operative effort to resolving these issues.
  • Rationalising the effort of the team and building on the strengths within the team.
  • Improved communication within a work group.

Characteristics of effective teams include:

  • Shared goals and objectives. This should include a clear understanding of where any particular team fits in the total organisation, and the particular responsibilities of that team.
  • Commitment to the team goals comes from all members being involved in establishing the goals.
  • building on the strengths of the team members. This enables the most effective utilization of team resources.
  • members of any particular team have a personal responsibility to ensure the successful outcomes of team discussions, meetings and ventures. Effective teams, and team-members, do not hold the team leader responsible for failure of their meetings. They do something positive to ensure success.
  • Self-regulation is another critical component of effective teams. Participation and involvement is encouraged and valued, however the rules and procedures of team meetings are clear, the tasks at hand are adhered to. And red-herrings and irrelevancies are not allowed to control team meetings or tasks.
  • Self-regulating and productive teams build in an audit function to their operation. They periodically review how they are going and what is hindering them from doing better. This includes strategic planning workshop or seminar evaluation.
  • Effective teams, in addition to establishing their key strategic outcomes, must continue to monitor the morale and positive functioning of the team, and this includes monitoring their level of confidence in their current strategic plan.


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