The Ins & Outs of Strategic Planning: Interview With Consultant Glen Fahs

Glen FahsGlen Fahs is an independent Organization Development consultant with expertise in resiliency and organizational culture. In this interview, he provides advice for organizations engaged in or desiring to engage in strategic planning.

Jathan Janove: What’s your definition of strategic planning?

Glen Fahs: It’s different from business planning. Strategic planning (SP) is a process of determining where the organization is, where it will go and how it will track its progress. It addresses fundamental choices about the organization’s direction, priorities, markets and brand.

Jathan: What are the essential ingredients of successful strategic planning?

Glen: Leaders need to be crystal clear on their customers, mission and values, vision, goals and, before an SP retreat is over, individual responsibilities for accomplishing each goal. A strong team brings out the best in each contributor.

Jathan: What are the most common mistakes that prevent strategic plans from succeeding?

Glen: Three common mistakes are: (1) lack of preparation, (2) staying inside the box, and (3) not nailing down and revisiting who is responsible for what.

Preparation includes an environmental scan, getting input from customers, partners and employees on strengths and areas for improvement, and getting key facts collected and distributed before a retreat.

Getting outside the box involves researching the competition, looking at the changing landscape and envisioning opportunities for change. Also facing threats — most retailers were not ready for Amazon. A big mistake is trying to do SP in an office meeting room. Going to a sylvan setting where people feel enthused and freed from normal restrictions is key to unlocking imaginations. It also communicates this process is not business as usual.

When only a day is allocated for a retreat there is no time for an afternoon exercise break, hike through the trees or evening discussions in cabins. Unstructured activities and team sports can energize the whole person, the team. Trying to rush through the planning in a day also commonly results in general goals that are not SMART — Specific, Measureable, Ambitious, Realistic and Time-Bound. If each person, or sometimes a pair, volunteer to take on a new objective, they will take more pride in championing the team in rising to the challenge and overcoming obstacles.

Having an external facilitator who has no ax to grind is critical. The facilitator is sometimes aided by a recorder who puts every idea shared on flip chart paper and posts on the walls with no names yet attached.

Some CEOs try to run their own strategic planning and it’s typically disastrous. People say what the CEO wants and then feel manipulated. By participating as an equal during a retreat, the message is that we are not interested in conformity to preconceived notions. We want initiative!

Jathan: Please share a professional failure story and a professional success story, and the lessons you learned from them.

Glen: My failure was when an HR manager brought me in to facilitate in an organization that was dominated by one person. There was no follow-through on the plan. The HR manager apologized to me: “It was my mistake not to have you bond with the President before the retreat. He didn’t feel like it was his plan so wouldn’t support it.”

My success story involved a professional organization that was mired in mediocrity and conflict. After a SWOT analysis (sharing whatever anyone considered a Strength, Weakness, Opportunity or Threat), we developed a succinct mission and then did something completely different. Our facilitator turned down the lights, and then guided us to imagine a warm park where we were individually under a tree, feeling proud of what we had accomplished as a board over the last three years. She asked us to listen to the celebration going on nearby. “What are people saying? What are they feeling? What are you feeling? What great accomplishments are you celebrating?” Our dreams shared in that dark room were very ambitious. We had doubled our membership and doubled our attendance in meetings. We had started a community service program for nonprofits that included training. We had exciting meetings and in-depth professional development programs. And more!

Our visions felt exciting and organic. They led to prioritized and integrated goals and objectives that had a volunteer to lead each one.

Afterward, all the new president had to do was call us before each monthly meeting, check on our progress and ask us to report at the meeting. Failure was never part of our vision — although we did have to fill in for one board member who had a job change.

The retreat generated a three-year vision with one-year objectives. We achieved our three-year vision within the first year. From a membership of 100, we flew by 200, then 300 the next year and soon over 600. We hosted a spectacular Western States conference that attracted over 400 participants. Our community service and professional development programs have morphed a bit, but continue decades later.

For several years I facilitated similar chapter retreats around the Western states with great results. I later did the same for many governmental agencies, a hospital and other organizations. The process is empowering.

Jathan: For someone interested in engaging in strategic planning, what additional advice or suggestions would you offer?

Glen: Realize success depends on how people feel. The right atmosphere, relationships and regular positive reinforcement breed ambition to exceed expectations. It is an honor to be a participant or a facilitator in a great strategic planning effort.

For a no-cost booklet on Strategic Planning that Glen Fahs used in the OODN Fundamentals of Organization Development series, send him an email at