At a recent client meeting, a Board member said, “It appears that S&W is approaching this strategic planning process as if we have a blank canvas. That worries me, as I feel we have to be realistic about what we can achieve.”

Reflecting on this comment, we realize that many of our clients may experience that same anxiety—they are excited for the opportunity to think about the untapped potential of their organization, yet slightly panicked about how to do any more than they are doing today.

Our response to that Board member had four key points:

  1. Yes, we do approach strategic planning as if we have a blank canvas. This is the key to developing plans that are aspirational and stretch your organization’s capabilities to positively shape its future.
  2. Strategic planning is really strategic thinking. For this reason, S&W develops planning processes that engage internal and external stakeholders in multiple conversations. It takes time to think about the opportunities and challenges facing your organization, and we find that offering stakeholders multiple avenues for giving their input ensures plans that are both thoughtful and inclusive.
  3. A visual metaphor for the strategic planning process is an hourglass. At the beginning of the process is the top of the hourglass/an inverted triangle. During this phase, we collect as many ideas and thoughts as possible. With every conversation, the vision for the future and the key planning priorities become more focused and refined. This happens somewhat organically, so there is no need to limit the thinking at this early stage.
  4. Organizations are often able to create a compelling vision and determine their overarching strategic goals. But for many, the planning process ends there. In order to have a plan that is both aspirational and realistic, it’s vital to take the time to develop detailed objectives and implementable action steps to accomplish each goal over the next three to five years. Returning to the visual metaphor, we’re now at the bottom half of the hourglass. By outlining action steps that are assigned to responsible parties, as well as targeted timeframes for sequencing the implementation and an estimate of financial impact, your organization will have a clear strategic roadmap for the future that leverages your core mission and compelling vision.

While S&W’s response was helpful to that Board member, what had even more impact was the response he received from his peer on the Board: “We know that, in order to survive, this organization has to continue to grow, develop and change. So as a Board, we had better be creative and take advantage of the blank canvas this planning process is providing us.”