Field Notes

Reimagining Strategic Planning

Reimagining Strategic Planning.jpg
Written by 
Tamara Kerr
Julia Monaghan
September 2021

In Conversation With Tamara Kerr & Julia Monaghan

Disruption is everywhere and in an increasingly uncertain and complex world, responsible governance requires preparing for the unexpected, even when the road ahead is not clear. Bold action requires bold thinking, and that means reimagining the most fundamental tools at our disposal and adapting them to better serve society's evolving needs.

In conversation, Tamara Kerr, Project Director, and Julia Monaghan, Transformation Lead, discuss how organizations within civil society and the public sector can begin to plan for a future that they cannot predict or control by reimagining the traditional process of strategic planning.

Julia Monaghan: Hi, Tamara. To kick-off this conversation, let’s start with the basics. How would you describe strategic planning and its importance to the public sector?

Tamara Kerr: Strategy serves a really important role in civic organizations, and outcomes of strategic planning cycles often form the roadmap of where an organization is going. This roadmap is often in the form of a strategic plan, but it can also be referred to as an operating plan, system plan, or service plan. In government, these strategies enable administrators to communicate mandates, visions, and priorities to the public, as well as assign resources or evaluate progress. In nonprofits, they help tell the story of “purpose” and aim to support sustainability needs like fundraising or measuring impact.

We’ve all been there when the plan isn’t working—unfortunately, there is not always a clear process to course correct meaningfully, like reprioritize funding, until a new planning cycle gets underway.

JM: There's been so much unexpected and tumultuous change over the past two years, that sectors are being pushed into new waters. What's the current status of organizations within civil society and the public sector? What are some challenges they're facing?

TK: So many organizations are trying to find their place in a changing world, but are genuinely worried about how to plan for a future they cannot predict or control. A lot of organizations are still in the throes of providing modified services, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and are genuinely unsure about how to plan for a future that considers multiple, plausible scenarios. Funding is scarce while service needs have only grown. Not only do organizations have to come back to do more with less, they are also managing workforce changes such as ongoing remote working.

The good news is that organizations are laser focused on their “why,” but uncertainty remains about what the tangible next steps are and how they will get everything done.

JM: Totally. How have you witnessed organizations tackle changes and challenges in the past?

TK: I remember the early 2010s as a time when organizations began to plan in a more person-centered way. It was right after the 2008/09 economic recession and we were hearing a lot of talk about “the new normal.” At the time I was working on system level plans for Ontario Works, and after the crisis, the number of people requiring assistance grew significantly and those needing assistance stayed longer. With new service needs, alongside shifts in public policy, the sector began to turn to human-centered design (HCD) to find innovation in not just products, but processes too. Organizations began testing tools in hopes of being more innovative and impactful, so there’s a legacy of envisioning change and acting upon it collectively after a crisis.

JM: I remember that too! I was working in international development at the time and we were using HCD more and more to make sure we were prioritizing the real needs of the folks we were serving.

TK: Yes! And building in more time upfront to hear and understand the needs and experiences of those using public services, and those on the fringes or having a hard time accessing these services.

Through their rise in popularity, HCD principles allowed organizations to better engage with those they were committed to serving. At Coeuraj, I think we’re evolving this movement. Because even when people are at the centre, if there isn’t the same energy put towards planning for the future then we will find ourselves without purposeful guidance, like we did at the start of 2020. This time we have to plan for the future, instead of looking in the rearview mirror.

TK: And so Julia, based on your experience doing this work at Coeuraj, what do you see as the key ingredients to “future-proof” strategic planning?

JM: It's tough to imagine anything as “future proof” these days. But within the practice of strategic foresight, the idea of exploring multiple, possible futures feels like a practical way to ensure that our choices will serve us, even in the context of uncertainty.

I think what’s key to maximizing the impact of strategic planning involves a commitment to participation and inclusion. I think we’ve all been in situations where we’ve limited decision-making or strategy development to a small group of leaders just because it seems easier or more efficient. And while that may serve us in the short-term, the long-term reality is that we end up in situations where the choices we’ve made don’t foster intended outcomes because we didn’t have enough diversity of perspectives involved in the process.

There are daily opportunities to build capacity for innovation and strengthen relationships with diverse stakeholders—in both cases, this will see improvements with or without a new planning cycle.

TK: How does the process and outcome change if you are prioritizing inclusion and participation?

JM: This is essentially my favorite thing to talk about because there are so many benefits to inclusive and participatory processes. The first and really pragmatic benefit is linked to what I just said: the more voices you have at the table, the more knowledge and wisdom you have to shape the outcomes. Two people can imagine more possible futures than one, 10 more than five, and so on.

By having more inclusive conversations, we create space for other ways of knowing to show up and be celebrated. The breadth and depth of thinking expands to reach unexpected insights about what's possible.

By having more inclusive conversations, we create space for other ways of knowing to show up and be celebrated. The breadth and depth of thinking expands to reach unexpected insights about what's possible.

Another benefit is that by involving folks who are directly impacted by the decisions you are making, you are ensuring that you are centering their actual needs, rather than your assumptions about what those needs are. And finally, as we say at Coeuraj, people love what they design and own what they create. By engaging someone in a process, you are building their investment and ownership in the success of that process, meaning that by involving a wider range of stakeholders in a process, you’ve got this whole community pulling for it, and you, to succeed.

JM: And with all of this in mind, I think strategic foresight is one of the tools we can use to create this inclusion. What do you think are some quick and easy-to-implement ways for civic institutions to incorporate these kinds of participatory foresight tools into their planning?

TK: The easiest thing to do is acknowledge that we can plan for a future that feels less daunting. Systems transformation doesn’t necessarily require the complete overhauling of a system; you can make incremental changes that can multiply in impact over time and across stakeholders.

The easiest thing to do is acknowledge that we can plan for a future that feels less daunting. Systems transformation doesn’t necessarily require the complete overhauling of a system; you can make incremental changes that can multiply in impact over time and across stakeholders.

The most obvious practice is to start every new planning cycle with small, foresight-based practices which can include: building your team’s capacity to gather signals of change on an ongoing basis; tracking and challenging assumptions your organization is making about the future; inviting other voices into the process; and identifying which aspects about the future are most uncertain and have the greatest potential impact on the organization.

TK: And what do you think, Julia?

JM: I think that by incorporating strategic foresight practices both in big ways, like through a whole strategic planning process, as well as in the small ways like you describe, we’ll be strengthening some important organizational muscles. First, the more we do it, the better we get at imagining the future, and starting to recognize the signals in our day-to-day lives that point to one possible future or another. And by bringing a range of possible futures into our planning processes, we ensure that whatever strategies we prioritize will help us achieve our goals in multiple possible scenarios.

TK: As we close this out, knowing the future cannot be predicted, what do you believe we can enable with a foresight-driven approach to planning?

JM: If I think back to what so many of my client partners were struggling with in 2020, it was that their plans hadn’t been “tested” against the possibility of that kind of global upheaval, so many of them were having to revisit some of the core elements of their mission, vision, and strategy. Now I’m not saying that anyone could have predicted 2020 per se, but the more comfortable we get with futures thinking, the less likely it is that we are caught off-guard in a situation where there’s an unexpected shift and suddenly our plans no longer make sense at all.

Tamara Kerr is a Project Director at Coeuraj. Having spent more than a decade engaged in municipal government, she has been a leader on many traditional and non-traditional processes for strategic planning. At Coeuraj, Tamara brings her experience from the public sector to complex civic engagements, to help navigate and manage the nuances of complex projects. Julia Monaghan is a Transformation Lead at Coeuraj. With over 10 years of experience, spanning across four continents, she has spent her career in the nonprofit sector, working to transform organizations and systems to better meet the needs of vulnerable and marginalized communities. In her role at Coeuraj, Julia helps to guide and lead the Practice capability, designing and delivering client journeys that help to transform systems that are at odds with the people they are intended to serve.