Well-facilitated strategic plans that engage every stakeholder build system-wide ownership, generate commitment, and can energize every employee. The key is to get everyone’s skin in the game. They strengthen how businesses and non- profit organizations respond to changing environments with far greater adaptability. Although they do not predict the future, they prepare you for it. They are especially useful when leadership has changed or a shift in the market stresses the business or organization. The need to embrace new technology, reach new customers, or re-energize a group’s mission are a few reasons why launching an inclusive strategic planning process makes sense.

Ownership is the Result

Strategic plans provide structured conversation to respond intelligently to these threats and opportunities. Every skilled facilitator needs to become proficient in facilitating inclusive strategic plans. Inclusive strategic thinking where all stakeholders engage, from the CEO to middle managers to frontline workers, makes for an engaged organization.

Is Your Strategic Plan Ignored by Many Employees?

The best strategic plans focus organizational priorities and enroll all stakeholders in the results. Both the plan and enrollment are crucial. A strategic plan with system-wide buy-in will produce practical, measurable, time‑specific results. With regular evaluation, you will know when you are successful. Poorly designed strategic plans, absent of engagement, are ignored and make fantastic fire starters. Good ones can be awesome.

Put in the Hard Work of Inclusion

Strategic plans are hard work. They demand time and resources. Undertaking them can stress an already burdened organization. Nonetheless, they produce results. When designed and facilitated well, they provide multiple opportunities for creative conversation about the future to occur. People generate the best ideas for embracing the future with imagination and creativity. Teamwork builds, and a strong sense of community breaks forth. Ownership grows as stakeholders redefine mission, vision and the values that will guide their behavior. In strategic conversations, everyone decides what is central to the organization. They make decisions on how to deploy resources of time and talent. Detailed work plans create a roadmap for success to increase profits for businesses and mission fulfillment for nonprofits. When the essential step of evaluation is built in, strategic plans guide organizational behavior and drive adaptive change.

Hire a Professional Facilitator

An insider to your organization or business can facilitate your strategic plan. A board member, CEO or a strategy officer can certainly do the job. However, hiring a professional facilitator to guide strategic planning can be a wise step. An outside consultant frees leadership to participate fully and brings objectivity. The workload for an insider can be overwhelming because facilitating and writing a strategic plan takes resources and time.

Guidebooks Abound

If your organization has never undertaken a strategic plan, several excellent books are available to guide you. Buy one tailored to the organization you serve. Books written for businesses are slightly different from those for the nonprofit and public sectors. These books will make you more knowledgeable for your own work and when hiring a facilitator.

Increase Frequency to a Minimum of Every Three Years

The pace of change is too rapid to write a strategic plan only every five years, the tradition for decades. The COVID-19 pandemic, technological innovation, and globalization demand a frequency no more than every three years.

The Key Steps

Organize a Planning Committee with Diverse Representation

Organize a planning committee that represents diverse interests within your organization. Include the top executive, board chair, a few board members, and senior managers. Consider including a few line employees and lower managers. By recruiting employees lower in the organization, you signal that everyone is important in the planning process.

Hire a Skilled, Professional Facilitator

Use a skilled facilitator, usually someone outside of your organization who can lend objectivity and free all stakeholders to participate without distraction. Having the CEO, executive director or board chair serve as facilitator is usually a mistake. No matter how talented, they cannot be objective. A neutral facilitator is especially useful when dealing with contentious issues. The consultant listens carefully to your organization’s unique needs and strategic challenges. They facilitate planning meetings, focus groups, and the planning retreat; crafts questionnaires; sets schedules; and drafts the plan. The consultant should be disciplined, deliver results on time, and have high personal integrity.

Conduct an Environmental Scan

Conduct an environmental scan that assesses your organization and the environment in which it operates. The scan is both an internal audit and a market study. SWOT analysis is the most used environmental scan. Others include Porter’s Five Forces and the Pestle Analysis. Regardless of the type, they accomplish the same goal. They provide data on organizational health, strengths, weaknesses and external market conditions—both threats and opportunities. Also, collect data through in-person interviews, written and online questionnaires, and focus groups.

Select No More Than Three Strategic Goals

Agree on three strategic goals. Strategic plans that emphasize more than this number become diffuse and hard to remember. Set aside the other goals for your next plan.

Hold an All-Stakeholders Retreat

Hold a strategic planning retreat that engages all stakeholders. Gather the collective intelligence and ideas of everyone who has a stake in your organization. Using a design derived from the World Café movement, Open Space Technology, or a Liberating Structures string, will engage everyone. During the retreat, you will create or revise your mission, vision and values statements. Key objectives will be decided on as you discuss priority areas. You will use a tool such as SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time‑bound) to establish detailed goals. The retreat must be inclusive to maximize buy‑ Include all levels of employees from line workers to middle managers and senior executives. Invite funders or investors.

If a nonprofit, include neighbors, political officials and advocates. The plan will be a waste of time with less than full participation. Rulers can no longer say “Jump!” and expect the peasants to ask “How high?” Involve everyone. The payoff will be a strategic plan that lives and breathes across your organization. Shareholders will be impressed, and funders will fall in love. Employees will parade the plan at every meeting. Water will turn into wine—almost.

If a nonprofit, include neighbors, political officials and advocates. The plan will be a waste of time with less than full participation. Rulers can no longer say “Jump!” and expect the peasants to ask “How high?” Involve everyone. The payoff will be a strategic plan that lives and breathes across your organization. Shareholders will be impressed, and funders will fall in love. Employees will parade the plan at every meeting. Water will turn into wine—almost.

Draft the Written Plan

The consultant typically drafts the report in dialogue with the planning committee. Edit it without mercy. Chop out jargon. Reduce the plan to simple, direct sentences that convey action, vibrancy and hope.

Vet the Plan Inclusively

Vet the plan with the board of directors and senior management. Hold focus groups with direct service employees. Encourage corrections and strengthen the plan until it is perfect.


Adopt the plan. Usually, a board of directors or similar group approves the final version.

Promote broadly!

Promote the plan. Gussy it up with cool graphics and make it a thing of beauty. Print it on glossy paper. Saturate your organization with copies. Post it on your website and blog about it.

Use it!

Most importantly, read it. Read it in new employee orientations. Refer to it in meetings. Place it in gathering places. If you make it central to your organization’s life, every employee, funder, supporter and volunteer will know its content. You will be impressed by how much everyone affiliated with your organization is on board, knows your strategic priorities, and the work plan that makes it happen.

Evaluate Regularly

Conduct regular evaluations. Schedule system-wide meetings exclusively for reviewing the plan one year after its adoption. Begin with the board of directors, then expand to other stakeholder groups. Review the plan carefully. Celebrate progress. Make course corrections. Invite improvements. Two years out, review again.

Do it Again

In three years, initiate a new strategic planning process. With change rushing by like whitewater, five‑year strategic plans are like a canoe without a paddle.

The value of strategic planning lies in both the process of arriving at the plan and the written plan itself. The planning process engages people in system-wide conversations about priorities and objectives. It creates multiple opportunities for imagining the future. The plan sets direction and guides performance for the years that follow. With the right design, the right facilitator, and multiple occasions for input, buy-in can be nearly universal, which triggers better performance causing your organization to thrive.

© 2021 Dr. Mark Smutny. All rights reserved no part of this article may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording company taping or any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of Dr. Mark Smutny except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

Order Thrive today!

For more resources, articles, workshops, coaching, speaking, facilitation services and to order copies of the book, Thrive: The Facilitator’s Guide to Radically Inclusive Meetings, 2nd ed., visit www.civicreinventions.com. Email Mark Smutny a question, idea for inclusive meetings, a book recommendation, or a personal story at mark.smutny@civicreinventions.com. He will personally respond to your email.