Strategic Planning: Creating Future Excellence, Part 2

Strategic Planning: Creating Future Excellence, Part 2


In Part 1 (September 1998), the first six of the 12 steps that comprise the Fire Department Strategic Planning Model were discussed. Steps 7 through 12 are explained below.

Step 7. Assessing the opportunities and threats of the external environment.

The fire department`s external environment includes issues and areas outside the department`s control. They include the opportunities and threats created by the forces and trends of politics; the economy; social issues; technology; opportunities and threats posed by the department`s clients, customers, and payers; and real or potential competitors or collaborators.

The planning team and a group of key stakeholders assess the external environment to obtain the views of both sides. Much information can be gained from evaluating the criteria used to judge the department`s performance. Questionnaires may be used to conduct a Stakeholder`s Analysis of the department`s performance. Gaining such an understanding assists the department in developing strategies to meet community needs.

Step 8. Assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the internal environment.

Things that are within the control of the department are assessed here. The internal environment is comprised of three parts: resources (inputs), strategies (processes), and performance (outputs or outcomes). The planning team should ensure that the department`s strengths and weaknesses are evaluated openly, honestly, and objectively.

The planning team should be broken down into three working groups: resource, strategic process, and performance. Each group should receive assistance from outside the planning team, including the outside facilitator (if one has been hired). Each working group identifies the segments of the department according to focus, develops measurement criteria consistent with the segment`s assigned task, and assesses the relative strengths and weaknesses of each identified segment. The groups must also consider the implementation potential for identified solutions to the department`s documented weaknesses.

After completing its work, each working group develops a report of its findings. The entire planning team should receive a report of each group`s result. Finally, the entire planning team discusses and agrees on the final report language, compiling the information from each of the working groups in written form. A presentation explaining the results then is made to the fire chief and/or governing board.

This step, like many of the steps in the Fire Department Strategic Planning Process, should be done annually. The goal of the process is to achieve the ideal future of the department, not to create a strategic planning document. Each step should be a step closer to that goal, but the goal is fluid and long term. An ideal future will be approached but seldom met completely. With the completion of this step, the department will begin to see that it is moving toward a more ideal future.

Step 9. Identifying the strategic issues of the department.

It is important for the planning team, led by a facilitator or team leader, to revisit the difference between strategic (how) and operational or tactical (what) issues. The planning team considers both internal and external strategic issues from the combination of viewpoints in this step. Strategies can be divided into four basic levels or viewpoints: departmentwide, organization subunits, programs or services, and functional tasks.

Strategic issues are thought of as involving some form of conflict within the department concerning the who, what, when, where, why, or how considerations.

Strategic issues may be identified using three approaches: direct, goals, and vision of success. All three have significant value. I recommend that the direct approach be used first. These approaches are used to identify a list of strategic words or phrases that address the conflicts within the organization and those issues critical to the department`s future success. The planning team may subdivide this list as necessary to attain a better understanding of the issues.

Next, each of the identified issues is formulated into a “strategic question” that deals with that issue from a strategic point of view. Many times, several of the words or phrases are combined into one issue that is dealt with in the form of the strategic question. Once each strategic issue has been written in the form of a question, an explanation of the issue is developed. It is preferable that this explanation be accomplished in a single, well-written paragraph. Larger issues will likely need more than one paragraph.

This statement should be used to describe the factors that make the issue a fundamental policy question and how the issue relates to the department`s mission, mandates, vision, or philosophies. The paragraph should relate how important the issue is to the department and describe the consequences that would likely occur if the department were to fail to deal with the issue.

After explaining all issues, the planning team conducts a process to ensure that the issues identified are in fact the strategic issues of the department. The “litmus test” (see page 88) is the recommended method of making this determination. Once this has been completed, the planning team critiques the entire process and each of the results. If there is any question pertaining to the strategic nature of an issue, the recommended series of questions will help in making the final determination.

This is a critical step in the process and likely will be the most difficult. Properly completing this step, however, is critical to creating strategies for each strategic issue.

Step 10. Creating strategies for strategic issues.

In this step, strategic statements are created for each strategic issue. These strategies form an effective link between the department`s internal and external environments. Strategies are the patterns or purposes, policies, programs, actions, decisions, or resources that define what an organization is, what it does, and why it does it. To create these strategies from strategic issues, the following five-part process should be used:

Identify the alternatives.

Consider the barriers to the achievement of each alternative.

Determine which major proposals or projects are needed to make the alternative effective in achieving the goal or vision.

Establish medium-range actions (one to three years).

Define specific steps (next six to 12 months).

Using this five-step process with a group process technique, such as the snowcard technique, in which planning committee members write on index cards their ideas pertaining to a specific topic, has a number of advantages:

It keeps the planning team from immediately considering solutions by forcing the consideration of all possible alternatives.

It helps to prevent the overevaluation of ideas.

It provides a reasonable balance between the creation and evaluation of ideas.

It forces the planning team to bridge the gap between where they really are and where they would like to be.

It forces the planning team to consider the difficulties of implementing the selected alternative up front and in the open.

Completing this step provides the department with an integrated list of strategic statements based on the identified strategic issues of the department. These statements will be consistent with key stakeholders` and the department`s missions and mandates and will establish a course for reaching a new reality for the organization that will allow it to move toward the creation of a future ideal state–a state of excellence that is locally defined and accepted.

Keep in mind that innovation is critical to shaping strategic success. A simple continuation of past patterns of thought and action will not allow the department to reach its ideal future. The focus needs to be not on the results alone but on the right results. Successful strategies will be a function of the time and care taken in creating and implementing them. They depend almost entirely on the execution of the details of the process by those involved. Then, future success requires that the strategies be implemented on a day-to-day basis by all members of the department.

Creating strategies for the department`s strategic issues will now allow the department to move forward toward the creation of its ideal future proactively. Alan Kay of Apple Computer has been quoted as saying, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Effective strategies make that possible.

Step 11. Creating the department`s ideal future through proactive futuring.

This step involves creating a picture of an ideal future state of the department and working to realize it. It is a visioning process that allows department members to see what the organization could be if the right things happen to get there.

The connection between strategies, mission, goals, objectives, action plans, values, and vision must be reviewed. Strategies are designed for the future. Mission, goals, objectives, and values deal with how the organization works today and intends to work in the future to accomplish the organization`s purpose. Action plans are road maps designed to connect objectives, goals, and mission. Values set the standards for how the organization functions in all aspects of the organization.

The development of a vision statement should occur early in the strategic planning process, not just during the 11th step. This will help the department`s less visionary members to get on board with the efforts to create the department`s ideal future state. Some members will get on-board early and be very committed to this process. Most of the department will take a wait-and-see stance. For them to eventually believe that this process will make a difference, the vision statements must be realistic and capable of being accomplished.

Vision statements should be created for different levels of the department. Personal vision statements should deal with the view of the department in the future but also with the individual`s role within that ideal fire department. Where do the individuals dream of being within the organization of the future? What can they do now that will help them reach that desired state? What must be done in the future? Once personal vision statements have been completed, they should be compiled into a composite vision statement, which then should be evaluated and used to create the organization`s vision of the future. This helps to create a vision that is shared by many members of the department–a very important step in creating that ideal future state. The vision statement should be several pages in length. Peter Block in his book The Empowered Manager advocates that an effective vision statement has several characteristics, including the following:

1. Forget about being number one.

2. Don`t be practical.

3. Begin with your customers.

4. You can`t treat your customers any better than you treat each other.

5. If your vision statement sounds like motherhood and apple pie, and is somewhat embarrassing, you are on the right track.1

Proactive futuring is the last part of the 11th step. It is more than simply deciding what is desired for the future. It is a process to create the ideal future. It involves taking small steps that move the organization in the desired direction. How that occurs is up to the individual organization and depends on the gap between the current situation and the desired state. The first step is to create a change in the mindset of the organization so that instead of measuring its success by the past, it looks forward to the vision of the ideal future.

The future is a moving target. Proactively working toward the future is a fluid process that requires constant evaluation and appraisal. When the desired future changes, so does the vision and the actions required to reach that new future. Remember that a basic premise is to think and act strategically. Do not be afraid to rethink steps along the way.

Step 12. Operational planning from a strategic perspective.

By this time, the strategic planning process has been going on for some months. Planned repetition has helped to create new realities for the department up through this time. The planning team has worked through the first 11 steps and is now ready to bridge the gap between strategy and operations. This is the point at which real change will be apparent to department members who have been insulated from the process thus far.

Understanding change in an organization is key to the success of this step. The members will go through a learning curve with the new changes that will take them through the competency levels of beginner, minimally competent, and competent. Some will excel with the change and obtain the level of virtuoso or master at the new change. Others will be blind or even “intentionally” blind to the change.

For the change to be real, there must be positive and negative consequences for proper compliance to the change. The challenge is to maintain a change-friendly environment throughout the department as changes are being made. Through consistent effort and patience, changes will become the new reality for the department.

Members` mindset is a factor in successfully making changes. This mindset must be focused on improving the department continuously. In their book Enlightened Leadership, Krug and Oakley2 provide what they call a “framework for continuous renewal.” Their framework involves the following:

1. Constantly look for little successes you are already having; extensively analyzing what you are already doing to cause these successes.

2. Continually refocus on the strategic issues, strategies, and vision; continually help all key stakeholders to be clear on the benefits of the strategies and the strategic issues.

3. Continually search for what could be done to move the department closer to its vision of the future.

4. Celebrate success; then start over again.

Analyzing the current situation is an important aspect of creating change within an organization. Another round of questionnaires will enable the planning team to obtain feedback on the organization`s current state. The team will compare the results of this survey with those of the original survey and evaluate the differences and then use the new information to change as necessary any part(s) of the previous steps. This will involve conducting a formal situational analysis to determine the priorities and scope of the needed changes, recognizing the concerns of a particular situation by understanding why a change is needed.

Remember that the purpose of the entire process is to create an ideal future organization through strategic planning. After the areas of concern have been identified, a list of key elements or components of the total concern should be developed. The planning team then sets priorities for the components to be acted on. To set relevant priorities, the seriousness, urgency, and growth factors must be considered.

This process will likely determine that the concern is either a decision to be made, a problem to solve, or the anticipation of a potential problem for the future. Each of these concerns is addressed differently. Once the process of change is understood, the focus of the step can turn to understanding the components and the process of operational planning. Operational planning from a strategic perspective involves applying established strategies to changes in the operation of the department today.

Operational planning sets goals consistent with the strategies, vision, and mission of the department. Goals, the desired outcomes for the department in general terms, should be defined for all desired outcomes for the department and be written in a standard format.

Each goal is achieved by accomplishing one or more objectives. Objectives are results-oriented statements described in measurable terms and provide milestones for the day-to-day operations. They should be realistic and attainable, have specific target dates for completion, and be compatible with other objectives that are components or elements of the same goal.

Meeting the objectives associated with a particular goal should lead to accomplishment of the goal.

Action plans designed to accomplish an objective should consist of seven steps:

Identify the results needed to accomplish the objective.

Select five to 10 of the most critical results required to achieve the objective.

Reach agreement on the approach to achieving the objective.

Reach agreement on an approach to document the results of each task.

Invite review by and comments from the various levels of the department that will be implementing the program.

Complete the final documentation of the action plan, including how to modify the plan as needed.

Implement the action plan, and evaluate the results.

Once the process of action planning is understood, review the traditional process of project planning and form the operational plan by doing the following:

Analyze the situation.

Define the project`s objectives or desired results.

List and examine all alternative courses of action or decisions that can be made.

Select the best course of action.

Develop action plans to execute the best course of action.

Set performance standards, benchmarks, and milestones to evaluate the progress and results of the actions taken.

Planning can be short-range, medium-range, or long-range. Short-range plans cover less than one year and are almost always action plans. Medium-range plans cover one to five years. The longer the time period, the more strategic and less operational the plan must be. The outside limit of most operational plans is realistically about three years. Medium-range plans often bridge the gap between strategic planning and operational planning. Long-range plans cover more than five years and are typically what many departments call their strategic plan.

The Fire Department Strategic Planning Process, if carried through from start to finish, will allow department members to understand that the future of the department and their personal rewards and positions within it depend on the development of operational plans that maintain a strategic perspective.


1. Block, Peter. The Empowered Manager: Positive Political Skill at Work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1987, 115.

2. Oakley, Ed and Doug Krug. Enlightened Leadership. Denver, Colorado: Stone Tree Publishing, 1991, 88.

MARK WALLACE is chief of the Golden (CO) Fire Department and the sole proprietor of Fire Eagle Limited, which provides consulting, teaching, photography, and fire investigative services. He is a member of the adjunct faculty of the National Fire Academy (NFA) in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He formerly was employed by the City of Sheridan, Colorado, as fire chief and chief building official and served as public safety director during a period when the city lost 30 percent of its annual revenue when a major business unexpectedly closed its doors. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and has an associate`s degree in fire science technology, a bachelor`s degree in business administration, and a master`s degree in public administration. He served as president of the Denver Metro Fire Chiefs Association and the Colorado State Fire Chiefs Association. He is the author of Fire Department Strategic Planning: Creating Future Excellence (Fire Engineering, 1998).

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