Thoughts on Strategic Planning

Often when I meet with orchestra boards of directors, I am asked about the value of strategic planning, and about how an orchestra should go about it. On some occasions, I am shown a strategic plan, and often it is a horrifying document. I do believe in the value for orchestras of strategic planning, but it must be true strategic planning. Many aspects of planning are neither black nor white--there are many shades of gray, and much value in a range of opinions and views. I thought I would assemble some thoughts of my own on the subject.
• Strategic planning done without an objective, outside professional consultant is a mistake. This is perhaps one of my strongest-held beliefs. Even if someone on your orchestra's board is a professional planning consultant, that person is not the right consultant for your orchestra's process. When the League of American Orchestras underwent its planning process, there were a few of us on the staff who were qualified to serve as consultants to other organizations, but we knew we could not do that job for the League. An outside consultant/facilitator brings a needed cold objectivity to the process, forces you to face the difficult questions that you instinctively wish to avoid, and keeps the process moving. He or she can help shape the process; can argue with the easy, safe, non-confrontational and non-threatening conclusions that internal stakeholders tend to arrive at; and can enforce timelines (it's okay for the consultant to offend a board member by pointing out that he's late with some task he was assigned, but much harder for the local chair or executive director to do that). I know it costs money to hire an outside consultant--and good ones don't come cheap--but often local foundations and/or corporations will consider funding a planning process over and above their regular gift. Even if hiring a consultant must come out of the expense budget, not hiring one is likely to end up being more costly to the institution than the price.

• In planning, the process is as important as the plan. Inclusiveness is crucial--board, staff, musicians, music director, volunteers, key community members all have a stake in the outcome, and all have unique perspectives to bring to the process. Their inclusion at all phases is a very important element of a thorough planning process. Nonprofit governance is, by definition, inefficient and messy--because it is consensus-based, and because it must allow for a wide range of views. This will make for a healthy plan and a healthy institution, and it will also make for a sometimes frustratingly drawn-out process. Accept that. It comes with the nonprofit territory.

• In planning, one of the first things an orchestra should do is re-examine its mission statement, and its vision of itself. Does the old mission statement truly reflect your values? Is it generic pabulum that could be applied to just about every orchestra in America, or does it say something special and unique about your orchestra?

• A key element in establishing goals is benchmarking. Determining appropriate revenue goals in different categories for your orchestra is tricky, but it is not impossible. Discuss among yourselves (your consultant can help here) what your peer cities might logically be. Size, demographic makeup, ethnic diversity, economic levels, presence of a university, all of these things should be considered. From a list of ten or twelve "peer cities" you should examine the fiscal and artistic performance of their orchestras. Eliminate those that do not appear to be successful. Benchmarking should not include failing institutions as part of your goal!  You may find that the process of choosing "peer cities" will be an educational discussion in and of itself. Many years ago in Houston, where I was involved as a consultant, those who wanted the orchestra to think very big pointed out that Houston was the fourth largest city in America. Others (more realistic, I believe) noted that it was the fifteenth largest market--because it has far fewer and less populous suburbs. Believe me, if you took the suburbs away from Chicago, you wouldn't have the Chicago Symphony Orchestra!  All of these factors help to illuminate the process and the people involved.

• The easiest part of planning is the brainstorming: this is what we aspire to be. That is exciting, invigorating, and gratifying--and must be done at an early stage in the planning process. The next, more difficult, part is estimating what it will cost to become that! This too must be done, and the benchmarking will help. But the absolute hardest part is describing in detail how you will get from here to there, how you will improve the revenue performance (earned and contributed) in order to achieve those aspirations. I have seen many so-called strategic plans that had a good and fairly clear vision of what the institution wanted to become, and a moderately realistic view of what it would cost. But virtually nothing in the plan was devoted to how that cost was going to be raised. Statements such as "We will increase ticket sales 10 percent a year" and "We will increase the annual fund 15 percent next year and 12 percent the year after that" are, to put it bluntly, not plans. They are fine as opening sentences followed by a very specific, well thought-through plan of how you are going to do that. But I can tell you that I have read many plans where the future necessary revenues were dealt with by one or two sentences just like that. Therein lies the difference between a strategic plan and a strategic wish list. When the League of American Orchestras was ready to release to the orchestra field the first stage of its plan (the outline of what we wanted to become), we called it "Strategic Direction." Until the implementation phase was done--the phase detailing how the League would pay for it--we would not call it a "Strategic Plan."  Once again, this is where the discipline enforced by a good consultant is very helpful.

These random thoughts are certainly not everything that can or should be said about strategic planning. They are meant, frankly, to stimulate thought and provoke discussion among orchestra staffs and boards about the important subject of planning. And they are meant to act as an invitation for others to weigh in.
June 12, 2009 1:41 PM | | Comments (1)



Wasn't it General George Patton who once said (I am paraphrasing): "Planning is essential. Following the plan is impossible."


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