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DIY Strategic Planning Facilitation for NFPs

5 May 2015 at 11:29 am
Xavier Smerdon
As Not for Profit budgeting season approaches, many are preparing for the onslaught of triangle sandwiches that is the annual strategic planning workshop, writes expert George Liacos who offers his top tips on strategic planning facilitation.

Xavier Smerdon | 5 May 2015 at 11:29 am


DIY Strategic Planning Facilitation for NFPs
5 May 2015 at 11:29 am

As Not for Profit budgeting season approaches, many are preparing for the onslaught of triangle sandwiches that is the annual strategic planning workshop, writes expert George Liacos who offers his top tips on strategic planning facilitation.

Sometimes these strategic planning sessions can redefine an organisation and inspire the staff, other times they can be an epic waste of time and leave everyone demotivated.

So what is the critical success factor for getting the most out of this precious time? In our experience, it comes down to preparation, facilitation and follow-up.

There is no avoiding the fact that if you want the leaders to really participate then they can’t facilitate or scribe. Facilitation and scribing require focus and exclude the person doing each from really contributing.

However we know it can be costly getting a professional facilitator in so here are some tips to help NFP leaders get the most out of their DIY planning workshops.

These tips below are less about how to be a star facilitator, or a rigorous process for workshops, and more lessons we’ve learned from 18 years of workshops.

Before the session

1.     Clearly define the scope of your workshop– if you only have a day dedicated to this exercise, don’t seek to answer questions that are too broad. Decide on they key questions that need to be asked and set out get them answered. Swap questions like “What are our dreams?” for “How are we going to reach financial sustainability over the next year?” This will help to get those participants on board that may have been jaded by doing a million of these sessions with no tangible outcome. If you want those really broad questions don’t call the session a planning session.

2.     Prepare the participants. We’ve found it best to write up a one page prep sheet, which includes any background insight and states key questions for people to consider. Distribute pre reading material one week prior and give attendees the same amount of time to prepare as you expect of them participating. Might seem a lot but trust us on this.

3.     Consider where you have your session. We know not everyone can afford to hire a venue or have an out of town retreat. Luckily there are other options. Cheap co-working spaces are dotted around the city. Restaurants will often let you use their space for free if your team has lunch there. Think outside the box – the community is usually willing to support NFPs in this way.  But wherever possible go offsite. Being in a different environment will not only inspire new ways of thinking, but will also eliminate the distraction of the nearby desk / phone / emergency that cannot wait (except that it can).

Ok, now that we’ve covered the essential preparatory elements, let’s turn to the day itself.

On the Day

4.      Kill the PowerPoint. This isn’t a lecture. While multimedia can be a great way to break up the day (particularly an inspiring video clip or two), the best outcomes flow when there is a sense of co-creation, not pre-determined answers. When facilitating, allow no more than 15 minutes at the front to bring everyone up to speed and set the direction for the day.

5.     Start with a bang. If you’re struggling with how to get the mojo flowing spend 10 minutes doing something light then dive in with these two questions: First, “What’s your value proposition?” (aka “what problem do you solve?”), the second is “What’s your business model?” A handy tool to facilitate the discussion of these two critical points, particularly with groups that are not comfortable with the consultant-speak, is the Business Model Canvas – click here for a quick 2 minute intro on ‘how to’ use this tool. This visual approach should help to get your team on the same page and establish a common language to carry through the workshop and into action.

6.     Find a scribe. In addition to ensuring airtime is distributed, it’s also important to make sure that the different views are recorded so that they can be reflected in the follow up documentation. Seriously don’t try and do this yourself and don’t depend on the butchers paper and whiteboard notes later.

7.     Manage the group dynamics. This is a whole book… be bold. If you are facilitating feel free to stop a ‘talker’ and throw to a ‘listener’. Pair ‘talkers’ up into working groups so as to give airtime to others… Another challenge you may face as the day progresses is interest and energy waning. A great tool to focus a carb-loaded post lunch team is the Value Discipline (click here for an intro on how we at Spark use it). From a structural view, try breaking the team into syndicates, moving them around, helping them shake off the emotions they can get caught up in. (If all else fails, cranking the air conditioner can work a treat too!)

Hopefully these few tips have helped facilitate a smooth session – however the work is not over yet. To ensure that the hard work is translated into action, a few key actions must be carried out post workshop.

After the Workshop

8.     Show me the money. Make sure that there is a physical output from the workshop and that it’s something people want to read. A black & white, 12 page document is destined for the dusty top shelf. An engaging, succinct and interesting piece will encourage action and ownership. Have both a physical and digital copy for everyone to refer back to.

9.     Regroup. Within a fortnight, conduct a follow up session with group. Ask them how they feel with the decisions made after having time to reflect. Give them the opportunity to add anything that may have been missed. Most importantly, confirm the KPIs, actions and timelines. This will drive real results and hopefully conquer the scepticism of planning sessions that don’t make any practical difference.

Our final tip does not apply to one part of the process, but is rather an overall guiding theme:

10.  Make it fun. Let us be clear: fun doesn’t mean frivolous – it means creative and energised. A great indicator of success is if, at the end of the session, the team should be tired but motivated.

At the end of the day, an external facilitator makes life easier, and can bring many war stories and cross learnings from other industries that add to the thinking. However hopefully following some of these tips will help the DIY session gain a little more traction.

For more on this topic, check out our latest video on the six most common facilitation mistakes.

About the author: George Liacos is the Managing Director of Spark Strategy, an agency that works with Not for Profits and Social Enterprises to realise their social mission objectives. Liacos has advised Not for Profits, Social Enterprises, Governments and Commercial organisations for over 18 years in the areas of new business and funding models, business and digital strategy, and system transformation. He has also held roles as the National Lead Partner for Transformation at Grant Thornton, Program Director for the Department of Premier and Cabinet as well as Chairman and Non-Executive Director on a number of technology and service businesses. For more about achieving sustainability, download the whitepaper ‘In Search of Sustainability: Thinking beyond funding models’ HERE.


Xavier Smerdon  |  Journalist  |  @XavierSmerdon

Xavier Smerdon is a journalist specialising in the Not for Profit sector. He writes breaking and investigative news articles.

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