Plans are nothing, planning is everything.
—President Dwight D. Eisenhower and architect of the 1944 D-Day invasion to liberate France in World War II
During these difficult economic and political times, it might seem insane to think about strategic planning as a useful tool for navigating a public-policy environment, when most departments are severely challenged with simply providing basic emergency-response services.
I would argue that just the opposite is true: there is perhaps no better time than now to develop or revisit your department's strategic-planning process. Moreover, strategic planning represents a prime opportunity for labor-management cooperation at a time when we all must be on the same page to survive, much less thrive, in the current climate.
A 2005 Public Administration Review article found that among municipal governments using strategic planning over the preceding 20 years, more than 80% were satisfied with the results (Poister & Streib, 2005).
While strategic planning is nothing new, the concept has definitely evolved through the years. Many organizations, including private firms and public agencies, started with strategic plans developed by their CEO or top administrator, perhaps aided by other executive staff. The traditional model for strategic planning is a linear, sequential, systematic process that often produces highly detailed, complicated plans with specific goals, objectives, activities and tasks for future months, quarters and years.
Noted scholar and consultant Henry Mintzberg, an early proponent of strategic planning for organizations of all types, expressed some dissatisfaction with the traditional model in his 1994 Harvard Business Review piece, “The Fall and Rise of Strategic Planning.” (Mintzberg, 1994) Among other things, he noted the following about effective organizational strategies:
- They must allow for creativity, intuition, and organizational learning.
- They cannot always be developed on a schedule.
- They cannot be “immaculately conceived” (i.e., by a small group of people).
- They must be free to develop at any time and place within the organization.
Mintzberg found the traditional model of developing a detailed strategic plan, then doggedly following it—with perhaps occasional revision—through subsequent years actually often hindered organizations from identifying and pursuing effective strategies.
Some might assert that strategy is the exclusive purview of executive staff, but Mintzberg's findings and other research into management effectiveness suggest that including those closest to the work (labor) in efforts to define the organization's strategy holds great promise for boosting the effectiveness of your strategic plan.
My own experiences with strategic planning—combined with my academic training, research on organizational strategy and strong belief in labor-management cooperation—led the Alexandria Fire Department (AFD) to launch a highly interactive strategic-planning process shortly after my arrival four years ago. Participants on the strategic-planning team were identified from every division, section and rank in the department, representing both labor and management.
We performed a detailed analysis to identify our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats—a process repeated several times to account for changing economic and political conditions. Based on this effort, five focus areas were identified to help prioritize our work:
- prevention, health and safety
- readiness and infrastructure
- community engagement
At first, the principal emphasis was on fostering a collaborative environment and creating a new vision, mission and core values. Beyond the strategic planning team members, every AFD employee was given the opportunity to participate in the process through focus groups, questionnaires and online polling.
With assistance from master's degree students at a local university, we developed a vision statement and core values that truly represented members' input, not just the feelings of executive leadership. In fact, the ultimate selections were quite a bit different from what I would have done, which just proved to me the worth of the participative model.
Later iterations of our strategic-planning process focused on addressing major environmental changes brought on by the recession, as well as dialing in the specifics of many needed improvements pointed out by external consultants and, more importantly, AFD personnel. While membership on the strategic-planning team has changed somewhat, the overall process has allowed many other department members to become involved through participation in task forces, committees and work groups.
Our process is not perfect and we continue refining it based on continual evaluation and feedback. But the AFD's ability to successfully weather the fiscal crisis—while adding 27 full-time staff, building or renovating stations and purchasing new apparatus and equipment—has been largely due to the heavy involvement of line-level employees working in cross-functional teams to accomplish administrative work that would otherwise be impossible.
Adam Thiel is the fire chief of the city of Alexandria, Va., and a facilitator for the IAFC/IAFF LMI Program.