Strategic planning: a formula for success
Dealing with the challenges of running a county is a full-time job. And many counties spend essentially all their time focused on urgent operational issues.
Ironically, successful counties in the future will spend a significant amount of time not dealing with such issues. Instead of frantically putting out fires, they will develop and implement strategic plans to prevent combustion. Berrien County in southwest Michigan is one county that has successfully substituted strategic planning for daily fire-fighting.
A strategic plan is a road map marked with critical milestones. To create its plan, Berrien County followed a straightforward, logical process built on a framework of collaboration, customer focus and accountability. Here is its formula for success:
* Use a proven outside facilitator. For Berrien County, an effective facilitator was essential to jump start the planning process; provide a neutral, outside perspective; furnish needed skills; and contribute innovative ideas;
* Actively involve people from all levels. Berrien County conducted a series of work sessions over several weeks. Participants included commissioners, elected officials, judges, department heads and key staff members.
The purpose of the meetings was to start a dialogue, identify areas of agreement and facilitate everyone’s working together in a non-confrontational setting;
* Build the process together. People investing their time in the planning must agree to the scope of the work and the ground rules they will follow. Because buy-in and commitment to the long-term planning process are crucial, Berrien asked the people involved to create the country’s mission and vision statements;
* Create a functional mission and vision. The mission describes what the county does. The vision describes what the county could become – a desired state that articulates the values, goals and culture that make the county what it is. Berrien County’s vision was to become a customer service organization, not simply a government office. Its mission and vision described what being a customer service organization meant to both customers (residents of the county) and employees;
* Identify the true issues and realistic priorities. The Berrien team asked itself many questions in relation to the county’s new mission and vision: “What are we doing well today? What are we not doing well today? What are the barriers to our reaching our vision?” By identifying, organizing and ranking these issues, the county developed a clear view of its true strategic priorities;
* Give departments responsibility for developing their plans. Once the strategic priorities were identified, departments had to further define them, develop detailed action plans and budget project resources. An outcome of this set-up was a cost-benefit analysis for the department’s strategic projects;
* Allocate funding. At this point, the county commissioners’ responsibility was to understand the department’s contribution to the overall plan, review their projects and cost justification and allocate the necessary funds.
Since funding requires a certain amount of trust and faith, it was important that the commissioners had been intimately involved in the process from its inception. They understood the issues, the trade-offs, the challenges and the costs of not proceeding;
* Monitor progress and results. Once funding was allocated and plans were being implemented, imposing a disciplined process of reporting and communication ensured accountability for results. Berrien County required that In-Progress Reports (IPRs) be submitted monthly or quarterly, depending on the project.
During IPRs, the department heads and project leaders sat down with the county coordinator and key commissioners to discuss the progress of the project. Status of work was reported, challenges were identified, and future plans were described.
The IPRs helped everyone understand the status of projects, detect and resolve potential problems early and accept accountability for expenditures; and
* Make revisions to the plan. Berrien County views its strategic plan as a living document to be reviewed and enhanced annually to incorporate emerging opportunities or major environmental changes. Because the plan was long range and because everyone involved shared the county’s mission and goals, subsequent changes have tended to be minor course adjustments. The county has happily discovered that the planning process gets easier each year.
“Success in long-range strategic planning is directly related to the amount of time and effort that the organization devotes to the five Cs: communication, coordination, cooperation, commitment and change,” says Berrien County Coordinator Mike Henry. “Good organizational dialogue will transition the organization to a high level of trust, permitting it to meet the future with purpose and energy.”