Strategies for Implementing a Strategic Plan: Making Sure Your Plan Doesn't End Up on the Shelf

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By Sally Holterhoff

Strategic planning…everyone is doing it: businesses, schools, churches, governments, charitable groups, not-for-profits, and professional associations. In the law library world, AALL is operating under its third consecutive strategic plan (, one that will take us through the year 2005. Turning to the 13 Special Interest Sections of AALL, a quick website check shows that most either have a strategic plan in place or are (like the ALL-SIS) in the process of drafting one. But in the case of AALL, its sections, and countless other groups following this popular management trend, the real question is: will all this planning actually result in an improved future?

I must confess that not so long ago, I was a strategic planning skeptic. I'd seen several groups (which shall go unnamed) put time and effort into a long-range or strategic plan. The completed plan was nicely printed and distributed, but then essentially forgotten until years later when someone noticed it had expired (in more ways than one!). But then, as part of my service on the AALL Executive Board, I was appointed to be a member (last year) and then to be Chair (currently) of the Board committee that oversees the AALL strategic planning process. In no time at all, I became familiar with the hierarchical format of a typical strategic plan, which starts with statements of mission and vision, goes on to set the stage with an environmental scan, and then identifies several broad strategic directions. Each direction leads to a list of desired outcomes. Set out under each outcome are specific initiatives intended to achieve it.

When I began my Board term, in July 2000, the new AALL Strategic Plan 2000-2005 had just been approved, with four major directions, each with multiple outcomes, and a total of 54 separate initiatives. I arrived too late to participate in the actual creation of this plan, but just in time to contribute some of the "blood, sweat, and tears" needed to implement it. As the old saying goes, "the devil is in the details." Implementation of a strategic plan means transforming carefully crafted phrases and lofty aspirations into tangible results. If you don't implement your plan, you've wasted the time you spent writing it. During my tour of duty with AALL strategic planning so far, I've picked up a few general suggestions about the implementing of strategic plans that could apply in a variety of situations. I offer these, not as expert advice, but as practical tips about putting a strategic plan into action, rather than "on the shelf."

Annotate each initiative in your strategic plan by stating five crucial points:  who, what, why, when, and resources needed. This annotated version is now your implementation plan. Creating it will force you to assign discrete tasks to specific entities within your organization, to develop a good rationale for each initiative, to set deadlines, and to determine if funding is needed. In some cases, you may realize that a new group (ad hoc working group, task force, or special committee) is needed to accomplish a particular initiative. Such an implementation plan has proved to be very valuable for the AALL Strategic Planning Committee, despite all the work involved in its development. It identifies over 40 AALL entities that have some role in carrying out a portion of the current AALL Strategic Plan and answers the other questions mentioned above. This working document is consulted frequently by the AALL Executive Board and is revised and updated annually.

Prioritize the objectives of your strategic plan and set a realistic timetable. Strategic plans commonly are written to cover a period of three, four, or five years. If yours is such a multi-year plan, don't try to tackle everything in the first year. Plan to address some of your plan's initiatives in each of the years that it will be in effect, in order to avoid being overloaded or overwhelmed. Being too ambitious about what you can accomplish right away may cause burnout and frustration.

Communicate and motivate--keep your strategic plan on everyone's radar screen. Reprint it in your newsletter, post it on your website, and refer to it as often as possible in various ways. This will help you build and maintain momentum. One method that AALL has found useful in this regard is an annual memo sent by the Chair of the Board's Strategic Planning Committee to the leaders of the dozens of groups within the Association. This memo reminds them about the current AALL Strategic Plan and asks for comments and suggestions from them and the members of the groups they lead. Many SISs began their strategic planning process with a member survey. It makes sense to go back to those members, the people whose input helped create the plan, and keep them involved in the follow-through.

Have alternatives if some initiatives don't work out as you had hoped. When you work with volunteers, not paid employees, you can't fire individuals who don't produce the anticipated results. You may have to try another approach to accomplish what is needed. Stay focused on your destination but be flexible about the path you take to get there.

Do all you can to keep the planning process dynamic and ongoing. Make an effort to bring the vision and goals of your strategic plan into the ongoing activities of your group, even though these regular activities are probably not specifically mentioned in the plan. Whenever possible, use the goals you've stated in the plan as a reference point for everyday decision-making. Referring to the plan can actually enhance your group's ability to respond creatively to new information or unforeseen circumstances, rather than being a limiting factor.

Monitor progress and set up milestones. Establish a system of accountability or a mechanism to measure progress. An assignment matrix or grid can be very useful to keep track of ongoing and completed activities. The AALL Strategic Planning Committee has developed several charts to match AALL entities with the initiatives they are tackling and to record contact names and current status of activities. These charts have also been useful to highlight initiatives that need more attention. Working from the charts, committee members made a series of phone calls to check with AALL groups which are (or could be) involved in activities to further goals of our plan. We found these personal contacts to be very productive. The information we gathered is now being used to produce an updated version of our implementation plan. And the calls gave us the chance to provide positive reinforcement that we hope will spur greater enthusiasm and further activity within the groups.

Evaluate and acknowledge results. (This is advice that I am looking forward to following myself, as various initiatives contained in the AALL Strategic Plan near completion.) If all has gone well, the results will match or come close to the original expectations expressed in your plan. In certain instances, a goal that hasn't been accomplished quite as intended may still bring some unexpected benefits. In any case, the tasks of this final phase are very enjoyable ones: recognizing and celebrating completed tasks, encouraging efforts that are ongoing, and showcasing the vision that has been realized by putting your strategic plan into action. Oh yes, and starting to think about writing your group's next strategic plan!