Writing + Curating + Projects

How to write a great strategic plan

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Harnessing a creative vision into a workable strategic model needs acute thinking, skillful writing and huge commitment.

Chinese military strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu inspired this month’s SAMAG seminar with his aphorism: ‘All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory evolved.’

With many arts organisations submitting their operational funding applications to the Australia Council or to some state governments this week it was a timely subject.

Sam Peters, Strategic Program Lead, EPMO Transformations Group Services, Westpac, recently steered the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) through their strategic planning processes. He said arts organisations needed to begin by questioning of whether a strategic document would actually enhance the efficiency, the effectiveness or culture of what they do – or whether they are just going through the process to tick the boxes on their grant application.

Defending  the Australia Council’s requirement for such plans, Frank Panucci, Executive Director Grants at The Australia Council for the Arts said that in creating the narrative of the strategic plan, organisations should think through what they do.

He described the process as a kind of ‘alchemy of presentation: ‘How do you translate all that vision into a very succinct story?’

More poetically, Atul Joshi, General Manager of Playwriting Australia, described writing a strategic plan as like writing a sonnet: ‘You have this structure and these brain-words, and you have to fit a whole world into that structure. (You have to determine) what is important, and what is not negotiable, in terms of what goes in and out.’

Business plans versus strategic plans

Where a business plan gets down to the nuts and bolts of your organisation, a strategic plan takes a broader view, with a longer timeline and more attention to your organisational vision.

‘I always thought of the strategic plan sitting another level higher than business plan,’ said Joshi. ‘It is a visionary document that speaks about transformation – a journey, a destination over time – where a business plan is a lot more operational, more about what you are going to do each year.’

Bec Allen, Executive Producer Force Majeure, who has just wrapped up the process last month, said a strategic plan required much broader thinking. ‘It is such a parallel experience. We are talking more about creating the headspace for strategies. The most challenging perspective is to put aside all that day-to-day stuff, which is the business plan, and think and do that big picture thinking, and then condense it down to 635 words.’

‘For us the big part of our strategic plan was what we haven’t been able to do, what we can’t do and what we want to do,’ added Allen.

Peters said it was essential to link your strategic plan to your artistic rationale. ‘The one saying I love – said by a strategist – is “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.’

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Should you engage a consultant?

Yes, but don’t expect them to write your strategic plan.

Peters said while facilitators were valuable his first piece of advice would be that you cannot outsource this process. ‘You have to do it yourself, you absolutely can get a facilitator – and I recommend that – but it is very important to understand that you have to grow the headspace yourself…and involve everybody in the process.’

Working as a facilitator for ATYP, Peters said that one of the first things he did was to demystify the strategic plan and step away from the management chart, the jargon and the frameworks. ‘Keep it simple and get the story straight, that’s what was important,’ said Peters of the consultant’s role.

Allen, who worked with a consultant long-term leading into their process at Force Majeure, said an outsider mcan stimulate thinking and cut through organisational culture. ‘Her role was very much the provocateur:  “Why do you want to do that? How do you want to do that? Someone else is doing that already…” It should be someone from outside your board who can be a bit of a bully. You need that to just cut conversations short and move onto the next thing.’

She said writing a strategic plan was like any other project. ‘You need to put time and money into it; to have a timeline, a consultant, and a clear artistic perspective,’ said Allen.

Joshi said the impetus for the project must never depend on the consultant. ‘Don’t undersell yourself – you have the capacity to do this. Many of you are artist – artists can vision the future. A facilitator is just there to help you unlock the conversations and ideas.’

All agreed that while a consultant is a must, it was important for the stakeholders in the art organisation to maintain a sense of ownership and responsibility over that process. ‘Ultimately, we are the ones who have to deliver it!’ added Allen.

Making the headspace

Mired in making ends meet every day, it can be difficult for any manager to think long term.

Peters used the metaphor of a dance teacher instructing dancers to “get off the dance floor” in order view a work as the audience sees it. He said in order to produce a strategic plan performing arts companies had to get up in the balcony to get a little distance.

Joshi also recommends taking a long view. ‘We found in our process that it was useful to extend beyond the six-year timeframe and ask “What do we want to be in 20 or 50 years time?” and expect to say, “We shouldn’t exist, we have been so good we burnt ourselves out of the job!” Then to take that back and ask, “What do we need to have done in the next six years to be obsolete?” Simply, you can extend time frames to assist in mapping a larger journey.’

Writing tips

To write in a very short way you have to think really well, Peters reminded the audience. ‘It is a very demanding task to get real policies across. Focus on just getting the themes right – getting light around the general ideas. The words can come later.’

Peter’s approach with ATYP was to move the rationale from page twenty and put it up front. ‘It was the central theme that everything flowed from. It is very important to have your artistic rationale up front,’ Peters advised, adding to be really careful of the framework. ‘You can see the energy in their eyes with the vision, but 2 – 3 pages in you hit tables with KPIs and milestones.’ Your readers switch off quickly. You need to get the reader excited about the journey first before knowing what you are planning for January 2016.

‘Start with the 30 second theory – who you are, what you do – and even getting that on the same page is a great starting point,’ recommended Peters.

‘We spent a lot of time on vision and aspiration. “What is an aspiration?” An aspiration is all the stuff you can’t fit into your vision statement. You can’t fit all of that into a vision statement, so we used a concept of grouping – a mind map – it is quite collaborative.’ Others employ the use of vision boards with images instead of words to capture ideas in the planning stages.

Joshi said providing a ittle context to your vision was helpful. ‘Just a couple of paragraphs or a half page why you have arrived at this vision, why this vision is the one you have adopted, explaining the processes that have gone into that slogan or set of words is worthwhile.’

The panel agreed that it was important to keep the life running through a strategic plan with skillful presentation. ‘A good quote, a great stat, a percentage speaks volumes,’ said Allen.

Panucci reminded arts organisations that support material is crucial. ‘Your narrative needs to be reinforced by, and seen through, the support material. Make it specific to the material you want to be seen or read you. You can’t expect a peer who is reading hundreds of these to crawl through a website.’

Delivery is as important as vision

Allen had practiced two techniques in their planning process that the panel saluted and championed: ‘We quarantined a couple of board members who were not involved in the writing process and saved them to be completely fresh eyes. When you get to that draft stage, you want them to look at the document to make sure that we get our story right.’

And rather than sending out a large groaning document – also inductive to “blinding” its readers – Allen suggested just sending sections to your board, your marketing or SWOT analysis (for example). ‘It is so much easier to get board engagement in bite sized chunks,’ said Allen.

Allen reminded all that: ‘It has to be a living document, so you don’t just write it and put in a drawer – which is really easy thing to do. In my first year I printed our vision and stuck it on computer. Every time we made a decision we have to go back to it and ask “Is that what we set out to do?” That really daggy reminder gave me the courage to say no, because it is much harder to say no than yes.’

And, in terms of presenting your strategic plant o funding agencies, Joshi laid another simple piece of advice on the table: ’Read the question; answer the question. There are very specific questions. I don’t need to put my whole strategic plan into those answers.’

Don’t rush it

Bring your board, your staff and your stakeholders on well beforehand and make sure you have a budget for the project and the right facilitator for your your organisation. Don’t do it half-heartedly.  This is a document that defines who you are, and where your future lies.

SAMAG (Sydney Arts management Advisory Group) is a not-for-profit organisation that formed in 1991. It presents a monthly Seminar Series.

Follow SAMAG on Twitter @samag2015.

This piece was first published on ArtsHub 4 March 2015.