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.