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HR as Strategic Planning Facilitator

A group of business people in a meeting room.

Nearly every organization could benefit from effective strategic planning and implementation of those plans. More often than not, however, strategic planning is neglected. And even when it's done, momentum for implementation often dissipates prematurely.

HR is uniquely situated to help organizations with strategic planning because successful strategic plans depend on effective human resource allocation.

HR can help other groups in the company identify and clarify their mission, long-term goals and tactics to achieve these goals. Unlike an outside consultant, HR is an integral part of the organization, so after the plan is written, HR is in an optimal position to ensure follow-up and follow-through in plan implementation.

For HR professionals wishing to provide this valuable service to their organization, here are some steps to follow.

1. Don't go into a strategic planning meeting cold. Conduct an assessment in advance on organizational strengths, short- and long-term areas of growth and opportunity, and potential challenges. Here's an assessment tool you can use, courtesy of best-selling author Marshall Goldsmith.

2. Decide who should be invited to the meeting. Based on your assessment work, who should be in the room when strategic planning begins? Avoid the common mistake pointed out by Sabine Amend, CEO of TI Communication in Portland, Ore.: "Too often, strategic planning is top down. Those with real expertise and those expected to implement the plan have no voice." Amend recommends reading The Secrets of Facilitation (Jossey-Bass, 2004) by Michael Wilkinson for insight.

As Park Woodworth, board chairman for the Ride Connection, also in Portland, said, "Who you invite to be part of the strategic planning process can be every bit as important as the process itself."

3. Settle prior disagreements. If your assessment work reveals one or more elephants in the room (obvious obstacles to working together that people are ignoring in hopes they will go away), figure out a game plan to address them in advance, which may include an intervention before the meeting.

Many years ago, I facilitated a strategic planning retreat but failed to follow this advice. I nearly had to break up a fistfight between the vice presidents of production and sales. Next, I had to intervene in a shouting match between the CEO and the chairman of the board. After I got that fire put out, the CEO turned his attention to the vice president of HR, and not in a kind and gentle way.

Chastened by this experience, I now make it a point to identify "elephants" early on and plan for them. They could be substantive, or they could be personal. Here's a guide you can use to help you do the same.

I once facilitated a strategic planning initiative with a separate session between the aforementioned chairman of the board and a long-time board member. It turns out, their incessant bickering was rooted in a comment each had made about the other several years earlier. Instead of resolving the matter, they subjected fellow board members to their ceaseless arguments.

Interestingly, both men had forgotten what they'd said to the other to cause offense. But both well remembered what the other had said! Resolving this grievance brought an end to the contrarianism on steroids.

4. Establish ground rules for meetings. Here are some suggestions. It may be worth reading Edward de Bono's short book Six Thinking Hats (Back Bay Books, 1999). This book shows how to create an efficient structure for gathering facts, brainstorming ideas, identifying potential benefits, imagining a positive future and playing devil's advocate to identify potential threats, weaknesses and obstacles.

Above all, emphasize the necessity of active listening. When I facilitate, I share three active listening techniques and make sure they're used. Active listening makes for efficient meetings and greater collaboration and eliminates pointless conflict. It also ensures that the ideas expressed in the meeting are not coming only from extroverts.

5. Draft a good strategic plan. It should express mission, goals and tactics with clarity, succinctness and specificity. This includes detailing what constitutes measurable progress and success.

The document's purpose is not to show how much work you did. That will only make the plan cumbersome and subject to conflicting interpretations. Rather, its purpose is to serve as a guide for fulfilling the stated mission, achieving the stated goals and carrying out the stated action steps.

6. Establish an implementation plan. Many strategic plans fail because the people involved conflate plan documentation with plan accomplishment. Your well-worded plan document is not the end. It's simply the end of the beginning.

Schedule progress check-ins. Create an accountability checklist to proactively identify and address red flags, obstacles or problems. Consider appointing an "accountability czar" who assumes responsibility for making sure people do what they committed to do.

Years ago, I wrote an article for HR Magazine featuring stories of HR professionals who maximized their influence and effectiveness by getting to know their employer's business. Strategic planning facilitation takes this initiative one step further. Not only will you gain operations leaders' trust and respect by learning their business, but, in helping them articulate long-term strategic goals and craft a plan to achieve these goals, you'll provide value on what they care about the most.


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