STRATEGIC PLANNING FOR THE DEPARTMENTS: AN INTRODUCTION
BY FRANK L. FIRE
Strategic planning is not a tool reserved for business and industry and was not designed to help only for-profit companies and large not-for-profit enterprises. It has evolved over the years into a mechanism all organizations–formal or informal, business or nonbusiness-related, large or small–can use to increase success in whatever activities they choose to pursue.
You may be skeptical about whether formal strategic planning can help your department or organization, but bear with me a little longer and see if I, from a background of 26 years of formal strategic planning experience, can`t influence you to give it an honest try. I can guarantee that it can be adapted for fire departments and any other type of organization in existence or yet to be invented.
As you read this article, questions may enter your mind concerning how certain aspects relate to the fire service and especially how they can be answered by a team of fire department planners. These concerns will be addressed in future articles.
WHAT IS STRATEGIC PLANNING?
Strategic planning is not complicated. It is similar to planning a family vacation. When planning for such a trip, the family (or leaders of the family with input from others) first makes a decision concerning the destination. Then plans are made to begin to fill in the details that eventually will get them to where they want to go when they want to be there and that will determine how they will get there and how much it will cost and (an important aspect of any plan) how to pay for it. Strategic planning is a guide that will help you and your organization accomplish whatever you want to accomplish. It is a formal, written, agreed-to-by-all-concerned, multipage document that lays out step-by-step the procedures your organization will use to get to the final goal or set of objectives. It contains statements; assumptions; actions to be taken; and, most importantly, the key organizational objectives. Each part of the document must be very clear and precise and have the commitment of everyone in the organization who contributed to its creation.
Once the strategic plan has been produced, it would be a crime and a sin to put it on the shelf or in a drawer and ignore it until the following year when it is time to construct a new document. It must be referred to on a regular basis to confirm progress or explain the lack of it and to make changes as circumstances change.
The more people in the organization who participate in the strategic planning process, the more the plan will reflect the goals of the entire organization and the higher the likelihood that everyone in volved will buy in to the plan. In addition, involving as many organization people as possible in the planning process ensures that everyone will be “on the same page” concerning where the organization wants to go, how it is to get there, and when it wants to arrive.
Why plan? A better question might be, Why not plan? But very few people might understand the answers to the second question. The answer to the first question is obvious: It enables an organization to achieve what it wants to achieve. It forces the organization to organize its goals and resources and, therefore, its activities. What kind of organization can exist without being organized?
The real answer to Why plan? however, is that planning is the simplest, quickest, most effective, most organized, and most intelligent way for an organization to reach its objectives. As a matter of fact, planning often clears up in the minds of many organization members just what those objectives are. If you don`t believe that, get several of your colleagues together to discuss the first question in the strategic planning outline (to be discussed in a later article), What business are we really in?
This is one of the toughest questions in the outline. If the Penn Central Railroad had answered it correctly, it might still be in business today. The managers of that organization actually thought they were in the railroad business. It was this kind of thinking that paved the way to its bankruptcy. If pressed at the time, one or two of the managers might have answered that they were in the transportation business. Not one of them was farsighted enough to realize the company was in the business of getting people (and goods) from where they were to where they wanted to be.
This initial question usually starts some real arguments, which leads into the discussion of the procedure for working through the strategic plan, which will be described later.
WHAT KIND OF ORGANIZATION SHOULD DO STRATEGIC PLANNING?
What kind of organization should do strategic planning? is another simple question with a simple answer. All organizations–be it General Motors or the East Anywhere Volunteer Fire Department, a PTA, a high school booster club, a political organization, an individual political campaign, a trade association, an educational organization, a scientific organization, an athletic team and league, neighborhood block clubs, legislative bodies, “mom-and-pop” retail stores, industry standards organizations, and so on–should participate in strategic planning. The degree to which organizations succeed is directly proportional to the amount of formal strategic planning that occurs within their respective organizations. Wars are won by military groups that plan strategically, all the way down to the operations of individual squads and other small units. Candidates are elected by political parties that plan strategically down to the individual household in a particular precinct.
The original formal planning principles have been adopted and used primarily by profit-seeking organizations. All along, however, professional planners and trainers have been trying to get not-for-profit enterprises and public organizations involved in the process. It just cannot be denied that the strategic planning process is a blueprint for success for all types of organizations. Beware the leader of any organization who says his organization does not need to formally plan for its growth and success. This leader probably owns the company, since no one with that philosophy would consciously be promoted to a position of leadership.
The philosophy of “seat-of-the-pants” management is typical of entrepreneurs, especially the “successful” ones who have led their businesses from literally nothing in revenue to millions of dollars in annual sales. These owner-operators are so enamored with their success, they don`t realize they could have been more successful with formal planning. Worse yet, they don`t realize that further growth may be impossible without formal strategic planning and that downturns in their businesses are likely if they don`t plan to avoid them. These “supermen” and “superwomen” think they possess some talent other business people don`t and they can succeed in the future as they have in the past.
No organization can function in the simplest, quickest, most efficient, most highly organized, and most intelligent fashion without planning. An organization that does not plan admits it has no goals, no objectives, and no concept of time or direction. Most of you out there do have goals, objectives, and direction, which means some of you do have plans although they may not be formalized and probably do not contain all the elements of a good strategic plan.
All fire departments need a strategic plan. Many have some sort of annual plan they are obliged to put together by the city council, commissioners, or whatever the name of the legislative body that holds the purse strings. The plan almost always contains a staffing requirement and a budget. Personnel requirements and budgets are plans onto themselves, but they are more tactical than strategic (more attuned to a one-year operation than a three-, four-, or five-year operation). Departments with an annual plan have a jump on those that do not plan at all.
Within the fire department, there usually are divisions, teams, or other organizations that have different functions and responsibilities within the department. They might include (but are not limited to) fire prevention, fire suppression, inspection, fire investigation, hazardous-materials response, emergency medical services, training, dive rescue, and special operations. If any of these organizations operate autonomously, they should have strategic plans. If not, their strategic plans should be incorporated into the overall department strategic plan.
For-profit organizations, such as those that sell equipment and services to the fire service, should have strategic plans, especially since the concept was derived from and refined by other successful and profitable companies in the industrial and commercial sectors of American business. As a matter of fact, the presence and proper implementation of a good strategic plan usually determine which companies will earn the profits they need to survive, whereas the absence of such plans usually means little or no profits and the eventual failure of the business.
Not-for-profit organizations like hospitals and universities and other training facilities have a great need for strategic planning. For many years, many not-for-profit enterprises thought strategic planning was the realm only of businesses in existence to make money. Some not-for-profit organizations recently have undertaken marketing planning, believing that the proper marketing of their goods and services was all that was needed to ensure success. These organizations found out the hard way that to be successful, a good strategic plan and a good marketing plan usually must coexist within the enterprise. Which of the plans comes first is a chicken-and-egg situation, but both plans are necessary.
Having a strategic plan may not guarantee that your organization will achieve every goal it sets, but it is guaranteed that the organization that properly plans for its growth and success will have a higher degree of growth and success over the long haul than the organization that doesn`t.
THE PLANNING PERIOD
The planning period should be for as long as you can see into the future with some degree of accuracy. The American Management Association (AMA) once defined the planning period as the number of years it took a company to double its sales. There were many things wrong with that philosophy. Today, each organization decides for itself how long the period will be.
The most popular time span at one time was five years. There was general agreement that companies could see into the future for this period of time. As the American economy changed from a manufacturing base to a service base and as competition from other countries began catching American companies off guard, the period was shortened to four years. Today, many companies strategically plan over a three-year period. Of course, each year, a new three- (four- or five-) year strategic plan is developed, as the planning process is repeated annually and the organization subsequently gets better and better at planning.
Regardless of the length of the planning period selected, the formal planning process must be performed every year. The previous plan must be updated, and changes in the organizational environment must be incorporated. Annual planning enables the organization to take advantage of its growth, adapt to changing market conditions and the ever-changing political and social climate, and revise organizational goals.
WHO DOES THE PLANNING?
Organization leaders responsible for a functional area of management should do the formal strategic planning so that the entire company is represented in the process. These individuals usually are the highest ranking in the company, serving as the heads of various functions such as marketing, research and development (R&D), manufacturing, finance, human resources, and other functions. The chief executive officer (CEO) of the enterprise must be part of the team, as should anyone performing other key functions, such as business team leaders and specialized managers. A planning team of more than 10 or 12 is too unwieldy to be effective. A facilitator, preferably a professional planner or someone with planning experience from outside the company, should lead all planning sessions.
The planning team sets objectives. Although it must rely on the input of as many people in the enterprise as possible, the boss and his planning team select the final goals and objectives. This shows commitment from the top and implies that the resources required for successfully fulfilling the plan will be made available so that all the action plans designed to lead the organization to success will be completed.
In a not-for-profit organization like a fire department, the senior planning team would consist of the officers who head the various departments or divisions within the department (fire prevention, fire suppression, and inspection, for example). The chief of department must be part of the senior planning team; and provisions should be made for obtaining input from every firefighter, officer, and other employee on every shift.
Everyone–no matter how many employees–in the enterprise should have input to the planning team. This may mean setting up other planning meetings on levels below that of the senior planning team and making arrangements for obtaining ideas and suggestions from the entire organization. Once all the input has been obtained, analyzed, and incorporated into the planning team`s agenda, the planning process can begin. Most organizations want to get right to the specifics of setting objectives during the planning period. This is the function most members of the senior planning team feel they do best and the one that is the most fun. However, the team must enter into some rather difficult processes before it can begin to set objectives. These processes will entail some very deep soul-searching, very serious self-examination, and very difficult admissions of shortcomings.
THE PLANNING PROCESS
As stated earlier, the first series of questions the planning team must ask itself are related to self-examination–that is, Who are we, really? The question What business are we really in? is really very difficult and extremely important. The team`s answer should define the organization`s business or main activities as broadly as possible but not limit the scope of the organization`s activities. To arrive at this answer, the facilitator will have to navigate the team through some tricky waters. Almost every member of the planning team will be surprised at how difficult it is to come to an answer that will reflect a meaningful consensus.
The organization`s mission or vision statement should state the enterprise`s reason for existing and its long-range vision for itself. The remainder of the questions in Section 1 are pretty straightforward, and there are no real pitfalls until the question concerning the weaknesses of the organization comes up. This question usually provides the first opportunity for some real heated arguments since the question of What business are we really in? Most members of an organization find it very difficult to admit that some very serious weaknesses exist in the areas for which they have responsibility. The planning facilitator will be leading the team through a virtual minefield of problems.
When identifying and listing the weaknesses of the organization, it is important not to nitpick. Real weaknesses are those that will prevent the organization from fulfilling the strategic plan. It is very important to correctly identify these weaknesses, since the most successful action plans are developed to correct weaknesses in the organization.
Personal attacks should not be part of the phase in which organization weaknesses are identified. No one should feel personally attacked when a weakness is identified in his area of responsibility. Neither should there be any arguing about weaknesses that have been correctly identified. Erroneously identified weaknesses will show up as such later in the process. Inexperienced planners often fail to recognize a real weakness and usually give a suggested solution in its place.
There is no question that the first strategic plan is the toughest to do, especially if done correctly. It actually may not be easier to do strategic planning in the years that follow, but it will seem so because the team will know what to expect, how to act and react, and how to get the cooperation of everyone needed in the planning process.
The facilitator is an extremely important member of the planning team. As already noted, this individual most times is an expert in planning from outside the organization. The facilitator must
be proficient in guiding the team through the many pitfalls of strategic planning;
be a skillful leader of discussion, a good listener, a good “capturer” of salient points made by the team, a fair dispenser of speaking time, and a good referee;
keep members from straying too far afield yet allow as much discussion on each point as possible;
keep certain members of the team from dominating the process yet recognize when those same members have an important contribution to make;
keep a team member from “hiding” by not contributing or simply agreeing with what someone else has said;
draw out information from team members who may feel it is politically expedient to remain silent;
keep lists of all important points on charts on the walls of the room and see that someone on the team will have them typed up and distributed by the next session; and
help whoever is designated to assemble the final plan in the best format and place it into a three-ring binder.
SETTING GOALS AND OBJECTIVES
Deciding where you want to go (Section II) is very difficult at first but becomes easier as the team gains experience in creating these annual plans. The toughest part will be to decide which Key Result Objectives (KROs) to set for the organization. The overriding KROs for any organization must be growth, wise use of resources, improvement of goods or services, and–above all–improved service to customers. The customers may not be the types with which we are most familiar, such as individual household consumers or industrial companies that purchase raw materials, services, and capital equipment; but they will always be customers of one sort or another.
The customer is anyone, any group, or any organization that wants, needs, or in any way depends on your organization`s goods or services. Your organization may seek out customers, or customers may seek out your organization. Your organization may advertise services, or (if it is insane) it won`t. It may charge customers a fee for goods or services, it may collect the revenues in taxes, it may collect in solicited or unsolicited donations, or it may not charge or collect any fees at all.
If your organization is a fire department, your customers are all the individual citizens, all the commercial and industrial companies, and any other organization (such as schools, the local library, hospitals, and so on) within your jurisdiction and some that may just be passing through on the highways, on the railroads, or in the air.
DECIDING HOW YOU WILL GET THERE
One of the most important questions to be asked in the entire planning process is What strategies must be in place for us to be successful? Strategic planning, quite naturally, has to do with selecting strategies–hence, its name. Using the vacation trip analogy, the strategies are the plans we make to get to the pleasurable place we want to be: What route will we take? What clothes will we need? How much money will we need? and so on. These questions correspond to the strategies concerning marketing, sales, finance, production, R&D, and so forth.
Each of the strategies in each of the functional areas is crucial to the organization`s success. It is natural for the leader of one functional responsibility to feel that the strategies in that area are more important than strategies in other areas, but strategies for all functional areas will have to be set if the entire team and the organization are to be on the same page. If the brain of strategic planning is the selection of proper strategies to follow during the planning period, the muscle is the action plan needed to bring the organization to its final goal. Action plans will be covered fully in a future article; but needless to say, they are the tools an enterprise needs to correct weaknesses, capitalize on strengths, take advantage of opportunities, use its potential for growth and new technologies, handle major problems, and generally get the right things done on time. When constructed properly and followed closely, the action plan can work wonders.
With successful action planning, the team can make decisions relative to the length of time it will take to reach the destination, the sources of the needed resources, and other necessary issues. That`s the beauty of strategic planning. If the rules are followed, a great plan can be put together. Then, with everyone working in the same direction (the completion of the action plans), one objective after another will be reached. It isn`t magic. It is hard work. It isn`t complicated, but it takes cooperation from everyone in the organization and commitment from the top. With all these elements in place and working together, you and your organization can go wherever you want to, when you want to, and not exceed your resources doing it.
The final strategic plan worked out by your organization will not be chiseled in stone, even if it feels as though it was written in the blood of the planning team members. The strategic plan is the annual equivalent of the game plan most athletic teams put together for a particular game and therefore changes with each game if necessary. Likewise, if the premises and conditions on which the assumptions used to put together the strategic plan change, the plan must be revised to reflect those changes. The strategic plan is a “living” document and must be resilient enough to allow for whatever changes in direction the organization must make to take advantage of those changes so that the strategies the team has selected may be implemented.
Even though the “standard” plan looks like a plan for a for-profit organization, it can easily be modified for any organization. Future articles will explain how the principles of strategic planning will hold true for all kinds of organizations. n
FRANK L. FIRE is the vice president of marketing for Americhem Inc. in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. He`s an instructor of hazardous-materials chemistry at the University of Akron as well as an adjunct instructor of haz mats at the National Fire Academy. Fire is the author of The Common Sense Approach to Hazardous Materials and an accompanying study guide, Combustibility of Plastics, and Chemical Data Notebook: A User`s Manual, published by Fire Engineering Books. He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.