The Art of Planning

BY CRAIG A. HAIGH

I have been immeasurably blessed! I started my fire service career in a small volunteer department in Illinois where we didn’t have a lot of fancy resources or specialized tools. Our budgets were small, and pancake breakfasts and chili supper fundraisers were a necessary mainstay of our operation. Funds were so tight that planning was essential. We didn’t have the money to spend unwisely, and we carefully scrutinized decisions to ensure that we were being the best stewards of the residents’ hard-earned dollars.

Chief Larry L. Anderson annually led his leadership team through the process of planning and project status reviews before strategic planning became popular in government. As a young firefighter (really more a kid), I saw the benefits of community risk assessment, budget planning, revenue generation, and careful project management. I got to feel the excitement build with the accomplishment of each small objective and the pride associated with bringing a long sought-after goal to fruition. It taught me to work hard, keep my eye on the ball, and not be distracted by the latest fad or what cool new tool our well-to-do neighbors just purchased.

This beginning set my mind on the importance of strategic planning and its impact on creating organizational excellence. Without this experience, I may never have discovered how important planning is for overall departmental success.

Drawing on these early experiences, I have come to realize that the strategic planning process is an essential tool in a leader’s “toolbox.” Used correctly, strategic planning ensures that a community’s service needs are met; its resources are managed effectively; and, as in my case, future department leaders are mentored and taught the value of careful and well-thought-out planning.

Strategic planning is not some crystal ball process that tries to predict the future. It is a well-thought-out and deliberate study that looks at the decisions made today and how they will likely impact the organization’s future.1 It forces an organization to evaluate what it is, what it does, and whether it is really meeting the needs of its community.2 It helps to identify the organization’s mission and thereby provides guidance and direction in choosing the right path for future success. (1, 15-16) It revolves around a series of fundamental questions:

  • What does our community need us to do?
  • What are we currently doing?
  • What is needed today and what will likely be needed in the future?
  • What would a blueprint for action look like?
  • How will we know if we are on track to meet our community’s needs?

Strategic planning is nothing more than a tool to assist leaders in critically reviewing their organization and making sound decisions. Leaders cannot effectively manage their organization if they are reactive or running from one crisis or event to the next. To create excellence, you must be proactive and deliberate in your decision making and actions. (2)

Finances

Whenever we start talking about planning, finances become a major topic. The message is almost always the same, “We will never be able to afford to do that.” In most cases, finances (or lack thereof) are an excuse for complacency and indicate an unwillingness to think critically and strategically. If through your community risk assessment you identify a true need, then a good leader is going to figure out how, over time, to provide that resource.

The good news: Options exist! Although beyond the scope of this article, numerous alternative revenue options are typically available.

The easy answer, although often not the best solution, is to work to increase property taxes. Although a stable revenue source, increases in property tax are often met with huge resistance. Leaders need a thorough research and planning process to identify other revenue sources such as fees for service; licenses and permits; fines; and, in some cases, special tax options such as sales, food and beverage, hotel/room, and state income tax sharing. As an example, several departments have found a sustainable revenue source by providing cell phone companies with microwave space on their department’s radio towers.3

Others tell me that the annual budget process is the planning tool. But the budget is not the planning tool-it is the tool that accomplishes the plan.

No question, financial management is difficult and can often challenge even the best leaders. Finances are a necessary component needed to operate an organization. It is essential that leaders not only manage appropriately the dollars they have but figure out ways to generate the revenue needed to meet the overall mission of their department. Strategic planning is an excellent opportunity to focus on revenue generation and determine what might work well within your local community.

SWOT Analysis

The first step in strategic planning is an analysis of the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT).4 The process requires free and open discussion; a checking of egos; focus; brainstorming; a willingness to push the envelope; and, most important of all, visionary leadership.

When assisting organizations with writing their strategic plans, I typically ask leadership to select a diverse team who can set aside personal agendas and focus on the big picture of where the organization is and where it needs to go. Team members need to be willing to speak the truth and debate professionally the various areas being discussed. The leadership (as well as the other team members) must approach this process with an open attitude, willing to hear and accept constructive criticism. For poorly developed strategic plans, look no further than the work group that developed it. Selecting this team is the single most important aspect of plan development. The entire organization must be able to believe the right team members have participated in the process, or the plan will have no buy-in from the organization’s members and will be disregarded. (1, 159)

Strengths. Begin by looking at what you do well. List each area of strength, including a short narrative on why you believe it falls into this category. The narratives are important in that they help readers understand what each listed strength means.

Weaknesses. Next, focus on the organization’s weaknesses. Just as with the strengths, each weakness needs to include a narrative statement describing why it is a problem. (3, 30) Do not let a long list of weaknesses discourage you. All organizations have areas that need improvement and, with each passing year, new challenges arise that need to be analyzed and addressed because of our dynamic environment. When looking at weaknesses, look for areas that do not meet the department’s overall mission. Also look for areas that lack resources, areas that have organizational overlap, and deficiencies in staff development and succession planning.

Opportunities. Focus on existing opportunities for the department to enhance its strengths or mitigate its identified weaknesses-e.g, new revenue generation areas, ways to better serve the community, training enhancements, and so forth. Push the boundaries, and certainly don’t shut down brainstorming discussions. This is the time for true visionary leadership. Don’t let discouraging statements such as, “That won’t work in this department,” “It’s not our job,” “The board will never support that,” “It costs too much, “The members won’t buy it,” and “You’re right, but …” stifle creativity. Threats. Finally, take a look at the threats to the organization. Often you can minimize them by taking advantage of an opportunity or by making a slight course correction in the day-to-day department operations. Other times, the threat is much more substantial and menaces the organization’s very survival.

Caution: The SWOT analysis is hard! Don’t rush the process, and don’t try to get it all done in a single meeting. The team needs time to think, process, and work through the challenging discussions. I recommend, if at all possible, using an outside facilitator to help the team work through the process and to play referee when needed. If the analysis is proceeding appropriately, each team member will at some point feel uncomfortable as discussions revolve around something they hold sacred. Understanding, compassion, and a willingness to be hard on the issues and soft on the person are absolute necessities if the process is going to be successful. (4, 18)

I document the SWOT analysis in a chart format that allows a side-by-side comparison of the categories and the narrative statements. An accurate SWOT analysis should be fairly detailed and paint a comprehensive picture of the organization’s status at the time of the plan. Tables 1 and 2 are based on the East Dubuque (IL) Fire Department’s 2014-2017 strategic plan and provide just a few examples of how to format the SWOT analysis.

Establishing Goals

The goals section of the plan focuses on what must be done to address areas identified in the SWOT analysis. Although the SWOT list may be lengthy, typically many identified topics from all four categories are similar or interrelated. When viewed holistically, solutions or paths of correction many times become obvious. The goals section of the plan is where these solutions are brought forward and an implementation plan is designed.

Goals identify what you want to do. Objectives are the steps needed to accomplish the goal. Goals need to be clear, concise, measurable, and realistic. (1, 50) This is not to say that they should not be a stretch for the department, but they cannot be so lofty that they are destined to fail. In my experience, departments often overreach in writing goals and end up with a lengthy list that is not achievable within the plan’s time frame. In most cases, organizations should have no more than eight to 12 goals when the plan is finished. I coach organizations to focus on a plan that lasts no more than three years. The fire service of today is hugely dynamic; longer-term plans almost always become obsolete before their projected end dates. In Tables 3 and 4, items from the Hanover Park (IL) Fire Department strategic plan show how to craft goals and associated objectives (actions), delineate responsibility, and set target completion dates. Table 5 is from the Village of Hanover Park comprehensive strategic plan and addresses financial management goals and associated objectives the Village Board has set. The last columns show the status of work completed on the goal. The village staff delivers biannual progress reports to the elected officials.

Once the goals are established and the various objectives needed to complete the goals are outlined, it is imperative to assign oversight of each objective to a particular person or group along with a required completion date. This provides a clear division of the workload and team member accountability.

The overarching goal of developing a strategic plan is to make necessary changes that affect the organization’s operation. With the very busy schedules fire service leaders juggle, it is easy to push off work on a specific plan area for another day. When this occurs, departments will regularly reach the end of the planning period with no real work toward the established goals accomplished. We are all busy, and it is very easy to fall into this trap. However, the division of work with established deadlines is extremely beneficial.

I use a table format to identify goals and objectives with separate columns showing who has been assigned the work and a column listing the completion date. Accountability and status reviews are a must. Quarterly reviews work well for many organizations; others prefer semiannual ones. Either way, leadership needs to pull together the management team and responsible parties on a regular basis to check progress and ensure that the details of the plan are moving forward.

Using the Plan

An effective strategic plan is used daily. It drives the organization’s decisions and becomes a living document as plans are implemented, adjusted, and realigned to meet the mission and values of the organization. Often, goals or objectives are modified as work progresses. This is normal and should be expected. When one digs into the specifics of a situation to take action, whether to correct a deficiency, build a new program, or bolster something that is already in place, we often find roadblocks we must remove or course corrections to implement-this is all part of the process. (2, 6)

Celebrate the Successes

When the plan is fulfilled and you begin developing a successor plan to address the next several years, provide a “close-out presentation” so all involved can clearly see the progress made and can celebrate the organization’s successes. This allows everyone in the organization to see the progress achieved and the plan’s impact. This also helps to generate excitement, buy-in, pride, and a sense that the department is moving in a positive direction. (4) It also instills the importance of planning in the minds of those who will lead the organization in the future, which helps to build an organizational legacy of excellence.

Strategic planning is challenging, hard work, and time consuming. However, it is an outstanding tool in the arsenal of a leader who desires to meet the needs of those he serves by creating organizational excellence and eliminating the crisis management model. The strategic planning tool, when used correctly, will help to ensure success in your emergency service organization.

References

1. Wallace, M. (2006). Fire Department Strategic Planning: Creating Future Excellence (second ed.). Tulsa, Oklahoma: PennWell Corporation, xiv.

2. Haigh, CA. (2010, February). “Strategic Planning: Planning the Village’s Future.” Presentation given to Village of Hanover Park Board and Elected Officials, Hanover Park, IL, 2.

3. Haigh, CA. (2015, February). “Juggling Hats: The Multiple Responsibilities of Managing A Volunteer/Combination Department.” Presentation at the University of Missouri Fire & Rescue Training Institute, Columbia, Missouri.

4. Heim, J. (2015, January- February). “Planning for the Future of the Fire Service.” The Bulletin, Illinois Firefighter’s Association (69)(1), 18.

5. East Dubuque (IL) Fire Department (2014) Strategic Plan, 7.

6. Hanover Park (IL) Fire Department (2015) Strategic Plan, 17.

7. Village of Hanover Park (IL) (2014) Comprehensive Strategic Plan, 14.

CRAIG A. HAIGH is a 32-year veteran of the fire service, the chief of the Hanover Park (IL) Fire Department, and a field staff instructor with the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute. He was Illinois Fire Chief of the Year in 2012. He has managed volunteer, combination, and career departments; implemented intermediate and paramedic services; and developed a variety of courses for the fire service. He presents at numerous local, state, and national conferences and is an FDIC HOT instructor. He has a BS degree in fire and safety engineering and an MS degree in executive fire service leadership. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program, a nationally registered paramedic, an accredited Chief Fire Officer, and a member of the Institution of Fire Engineers.

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