An effective planning process can bring with it many positive elements including increased clarity of vision, unity on areas of strategic focus, creation of new alliances and a renewed sense of purpose. But it would be naive to imagine that there is no price to be paid along the way. Planning is both bitter and sweet. Here are some problems that often accompany planning efforts, and that you should be prepared to encounter.
Conflict: An open and honest planning process is bound to uncover differences—often significant—between participants, over issues large and small. Skeletons will jump out of their closets and deep-seated resentments or suppressed complaints will rise to the surface. If your organization has a culture that has avoided conflict in the past, and has no methods in place for arbitrating very strong differences between parties, then planning may heighten and exacerbate tensions. Planning presents a perfect opportunity to learn how to fold conflict resolution skills into your modus operandi so you can approach difficult issues in a healthy manner. Some approaches to conflict resolution include focusing on shared goals and connecting change to the availability of greater resources.
Burnout: Planning will impose an extra layer of work on your already overburdened staff. Key participants report spending as much as 50 percent of their time on planning-related activities during peak periods—while still having to conduct the regular business of the agency. Do not underestimate the time planning will take, and be realistic about its effect on the operation of your agency and staff. The planning-to-plan period is an excellent time to consider how to mitigate stress.
No one should be surprised if the process feels less like a comfortable trip on a commuter train than like a ride on a roller coaster. But remember, even roller coaster cars arrive at their destination, as long as they stay on track!
Turnover (internal and legislative): Internally, planning should clarify some key issues for your organization—its core values and its future direction. Often planning will produce a set of future goals and objectives that are quite a departure from past directions. When this happens, some staff, administration, council members and clients may discover that they are no longer in harmony with the organization. Or the organization may discover that the set of skills, attitudes and programs it now has will not meet the demands of its new direction. Be prepared to handle both voluntary and imposed turnover as a result of planning. Externally, SAAs live on shifting legislative ground, where term limits and legislative/governor turnover guarantee a fluid political environment. This provides yet another reason for agencies to stay flexible during planning, make strong connections on the grassroots level, and remain closely connected to the legislative process.
Rumor mills: In many organizations planning takes place on a number of levels, in many settings, using various teams and task forces. This poses a special problem for coordinating the dissemination of information throughout the planning process—especially when a significant change in direction, structure or programming is being discussed. Be prepared to squelch rumor mills by having mechanisms in place to communicate the relevant results of planning to key stakeholders at all appropriate moments throughout the process via tools such as internal memos, distribution of meeting minutes, staff meetings and individual debriefings.
Frustration: Planning does not move forward in a perfectly linear and predictable manner. Because you are in the position of discovery, and because your organization is dynamic throughout the process, you can expect to move two steps forward and one step back—or one step forward and two steps back! Remaining adaptable throughout the process will help reduce your level of frustration. As Michael Allison and Jude Kay point out in their book Strategic Planning for Nonprofit Organizations, "No one should be surprised if the process feels less like a comfortable trip on a commuter train than like a ride on a roller coaster. But remember, even roller coaster cars arrive at their destination, as long as they stay on track!"
Paralysis: Because planning will address the major long-term directions of your agency and encourage serious reexamination of current programs, be prepared for a stalling effect. People may want to defer action until all the pieces of the puzzle have been reassembled. It is important to keep in mind that planning is a messy process, and that your agency must keep functioning throughout the planning period. Avoid paralysis by beginning to implement some actions during planning, before everything has been resolved and committed to paper.
Raised expectations: As you begin to talk to stakeholders about your agency's dreams and aspirations, and scan the environment by surveying the community's needs and wants, you will naturally create a raised level of expectations. Even though the agency has not yet promised to provide anything new to constituents, visions of sugarplums may dance in their heads. Be prepared to deal with the desire for your agency to be all things to all people. When you have your sense of focus and priorities well defined, broadcast them widely and clearly.
Lack of resources: Effective planning takes time, money and a concerted effort on the part of at least a small group of people. Take a good look at your agency's resources and construct a planning process that is doable given your own particular situation. As our case studies have shown, there is a wide range of planning models—from eight months to three years in duration, and from $5,000 to $320,000 in cost—that can produce excellent results. One of the ironies of planning is that it can cause as many problems as it solves. Once your plan is in place, it is highly likely to require additional resources. This is when a strong sense of focus is necessary, to help you concentrate limited time, energy and finances on the most important activities, while you use the document and your new relationships to secure additional resources to fulfill the rest of your plan.