Foundations for Excellence

Tips and Tools that Support Strategic Planning

Topic 2 Planning IconTo develop feasible program goals and measurable objectives, your strategic planning process will need to include a focus on identifying and analyzing the patterns, trends, and issues that might prevent you from successfully implementing your goals. Understanding these challenges will enable you to anticipate and address obstacles before they occur. Just as importantly, it will move your program away from providing band-aid solutions and toward addressing the root causes of systemic problems. The Institute of Cultural Affairs uses the analogy of weeding dandelions to illustrate the importance of addressing root causes.4 If you cut down the dandelions, they grow back within a few days; if you dig down and remove the tap root, the dandelion is removed permanently. Focusing on the root cause of challenges or barriers to successful service delivery is strategic planning's way of digging deeper. It is also a practical step in mapping out the strategic direction.

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Strategic planning shifts the focus from what’s lacking to what is preventing forward movement.

What challenges lay ahead? There are typically three types of responses to this question: lack of money, lack of staff, or lack of time. It is important to look beyond what is lacking and dig deeper. Another analogy from the Institute of Cultural Affairs demonstrates this message: "Imagine watering plants in a garden when the water running from the hose suddenly stops. You don't just stare at the hose and shout, "There's no water." Instead, you turn to see if there is a kink in the hose, if someone stepped on it, or if someone turned off the water."5 Likewise, in strategic planning, you must move from what's lacking to what is preventing your forward movement.

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The five in the 5 Whys technique derives from an anecdotal observation on the number of iterations needed to resolve a problem.

The 5 Whys. The 5 Whys is one of many approaches to identifying and addressing challenges.6 The 5 Whys is a series of why-based questions that set the stage for deeper problem-solving. For example, a program might launch the first question with, "What challenges might keep us from achieving our strategic long-term goal to improve child passenger safety?" A team member might respond, "We may not be able to get parents to participate." "Why can't we get parents to participate?" The questions and responses continue on this theme until the root cause surfaces. The process is akin to peeling back the layers of an onion. Typically, you will be able to use the final response to document your expected challenge in the baseline Head Start grant application.

Be aware that the challenges you surface may require you to rethink, revise, or reframe your program goal or measurable objectives.

Appreciative Inquiry. Appreciative Inquiry is another technique you can use to support strategic planning. The essence of Appreciative Inquiry is the search for the best in people and their organizations. It lifts up the notion of a focused dialogue. Professor Ron Fry from Case Western Reserve University encourages planning groups to "study what's good if they want to get more good." In other words, by examining what is going well, planning groups develop insights into ways to apply good practices in new situations. Conversely, focusing on what is wrong usually produces only incremental change. An expert in Appreciative Inquiry, Professor Fry advises that posing positive questions and encouraging storytelling about successes helps people see the bigger possibilities and go beyond the incremental "tweaks" to truly dig deeper for solutions.

Find a Solution Through Focused Dialogue

What does focused dialogue look like? For an example, consider a situation where your data analysis is pointing to a family engagement goal. As your team begins to craft the goal, pull back and begin a dialogue focused on two questions:

  • What is working well in this area?
  • Why is it working well?

Identify Challenges
Move forward to identifying challenges with questions such as:

  • What is not working well?
  • Why is it not working well?

Analyze Data
Then, analyze the data through dialogue with questions such as:

  • What aspects of “what is working” can be used to find a solution?
  • What factors have been considered in reaching a solution?
  • What else do we need to know before we decide?

Decide on Course Corrections
Next, decide on the course correction with questions such as:

  • What changes do we propose?
  • Do the changes advance our goals?
  • Who is responsible for implementing?

Determine Check-ins and Follow-ups
Finally, determine when to check-in and follow-up with questions such as:

  • What data needs to be reviewed and how often?
  • What needs to happen to make sure the changes are working?
  • Is it a short term or long-term solution?

Use that solution to inform the course correction. The team’s dialogue will move from a simplistic listing of issues to a more substantive solutions-focused discussion. From that, you will be able to identify a more useful solution.

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Forecasting is the process of making future predictions based on past and present data with an analysis of related trends. The Head Start Grant Application Instructions ask programs to identify expected outcomes and challenges in the baseline application. This is forecasting. Forecasting is an important part of strategic planning.

While successful strategic planning requires groups to adopt a forward-thinking mindset, programs nevertheless sometimes cling to once successful strategies, even after those approaches no longer work. Management literature calls this phenomenon "escalation of commitment."

There are several reasons why programs might be reluctant to alter course. First, people tend to value commitments and investments already made, particularly in terms of cost and resources expended. Second, individuals tend to worry that altering course might result in a possible loss of status. And third, groups have a strong desire to simply complete the task—see a project through. Karl Weick of the University of Michigan speaks to this escalation of commitment, asserting that organizational decision-makers must not ignore the events that weaken forward-thinking strategy.7

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Escalation of commitment is a human behavior pattern in which stakeholders facing increasingly negative outcomes continue the same behavior rather than alter course.

The leader's role is to create an environment of safety so that team members are comfortable to offer ideas, speak to concerns, ask for help, or even express ambivalence about moving forward with program goals and strategies that could be potentially ineffective or damaging. Ultimately, programs should strive to embrace innovative ideas and approaches that are consistent with the changing fluid environments in which Head Start programs operate today.

Question Mark IconWhat role does collaboration and honest dialogue play in your planning process?

In summary, as Kenney infers at the opening of this topic, strategic planning is indispensable. Strategic planning is the process of digging deeply with dialogue-focused questions so that you are able to develop sound program goals and measurable objectives. It is a dynamic process resulting in a strategic plan that is a work in progress.

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In Topic 2, you learned how to use strategic planning tools and techniques to envision a desired future. In Topic 3, you will build on this understanding and consider how to use different types of goals to provide responsive, high-quality services to children and families.

4. Art and Science of Participation: Facilitated Planning [Lecture]. (2005). The Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs.

5. Feedback and Capacity Planning Workshop [Lecture]. (2003). Participatory Capacity Building.

6. Riles, Eric. (2012, March 16), The 5 Whys. Harvard Business Review YouTube Channel.

7. Vermeulen, F. Sivanathan, N. (2017). Stop Doubling Down on Failing Strategies. Harvard Business Review.