Strategic planning is honoured more in name than action. Maybe we should just call it planning, but strategic has such an aura of importance about it. It might be useful to visit a dictionary to refresh our understanding of these words.
Strategic: relating to the identification of long-term or overall aims and interests and the means for achieving them.
Plan: a detailed proposal for doing or achieving something
So, a strategic plan identifies long-term aims and provides a detailed method for achieving them.
There are two elements – a goal and the means of getting to it.
In 2019 the 15 members of my then employer’s (now the Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ)) DEN’s Guidance and Action Team (GAT) was privileged to participate in a 2-day facilitated planning workshop. It wasn’t called a Strategic Planning workshop. We called it an Action Planning workshop. We needed to lay down the foundation of the DEN’s future actions and culture. We had presented to the Board in February that year and we returned to the Board in November with a bold spreadsheet detailing what we wanted to achieve.
What gets counted gets done
In my time in DCJ I was frequently required to prepare project plans, which I did with a sense of despair. They were signed off and forgotten. Even when I went back to a manager to review the plan, I was mostly met with a blank look – “You are taking this seriously?”Well, yes. The whole point of making a plan is to follow it.
That doesn’t mean a plan is followed rigidly. In the “fog of war” of reality, circumstances will drive the need for changes and revisions. But while the plan must be adaptive it still must be followed.
While our original Action Plan was a great foundation, it was essentially a manifesto for influence. It had a bold time frame and clear success measures. But with 13 action areas it was wildly ambitious. It was what we wanted rather than what we had contracted with the department to make happen in a clear and precise way.
This was a vital distinction. Setting a set of aspirational goals for DEN wasn’t the same as contracting a set of outputs with the organization. That was where we wanted to get to, but a lot had to change first – and we were exploring what that was.
I recently looked at that plan, developed around this time (September) in 2019. Some of the actions are still being pursued. Most actions have been achieved, but well after our bold 2020 target date. However, there were only 2 actions that remained unfulfilled – greater awareness of invisible disabilities and a degenerative disease and disability transition program.
Planning for cultural change
Culture is the accumulated expression of lived experience, and it is grounded in behavioursand actions. There are actions that can be planned, executed, and measured in terms of outputs but the outcome can often only be hoped for.
Strategic planning is about planning to maximise the chances of your desired outcome happening. Straight planning works when we are dealing with outputs, not outcomes.
The distinction is critical. Outputs are the consequences of rational and predictable actions. Outcomes are the benefits conferred by such actions and more. Well intended outputs do not assure desired outcomes. Influence upon culture is independent of outputs but is also interdependent.
We need to ensure that our organizations’ culture is conducive to turning outputs into outcomes. With most public sector organizations, we are dealing with a reservoir of goodwill that may need to be assured it can freely express a willingness to be inclusive. Sometimes an organization’s culture can be dominated by change exhaustion or workload demand and hence be more in a survival mode than a celebratory one.
In 2019 the DEN was committed to generating positive cultural change. The 2019 DCJ’s annual People Matter Employee Survey (PMES) score for disability was 4% of staff. In 2022 it had doubled to 8%. The DEN’s approached paid off. It had laid the foundation for continued cultural evolution.
That doubling of the percentage of staff with disability signaled a critical shift in confidence by those staff – but that would not have been possible without a wider change across the organization’s culture.
Planning for procedural change
This is harder because it requires agreement at an organizational level that things will be done differently at a policy, procedural and practice level. Cost may be directly involved. Changing policies and procedures is slower than we’d like. It always is.
When I joined the DEN in 2010, I wanted a return-to-work policy for people with acquired disabilities not related to work-related events. This morphed into the idea of a workplace adjustment passport. It has taken nearly a decade of steady change in attitudes, maturation of ideas and the evolution of methods. There had to be a cultural shift first. What seemed self-evident at the level of living with disability has slowly evolved into a workplace adjustment passport, a flexible working policy, accessible technology, and other forms of accommodation of needs – but for all staff and not just those with disability.
The Disability Inclusion movement may have been the most focused drive for change, but it wasn’t the only influence.
We plan everything of consequence. The more complex the task the more detailed the plan must be.
I exited hospital in March 2009 after 10 months. Going home was a profoundly desperate need that had to be planned on so many levels. I was still facing at least 6 months of intensive home-based physiotherapy. It wasn’t well-planned and I was constantly discovering needs that had to be met by my own makeshift effort rather than the health system.
My return to work was good-spirited but ramshackle. I was a novelty to my employer and myself. We struggled through, though sometimes causing more pain that was necessary. We were all learning how to be adaptive and inclusive on the job.
The following year the DEN was established and now multiple staff with disability and key people from HR shared discovering what a DEN could be. It took 9 years before the potential of what the DEN could be was evident. It had sufficient agency to imagine what might be possible and plan to achieve clear goals.
Over that time the idea of Disability Inclusion was maturing across the sector as well. The idea was also evolving inside the organization, as its culture changed. We had created a collaboration between the DEN and the organization. We had shared goals. We could now think about planning for positive change in ways that are more effective than our earlier efforts.
We can see that there is an essential difference between project planning and strategic planning. I still think the word ‘strategic’ is often used just because it sounds important. However, when we understand that strategic planning embraces the outcome of actions, not merely the output, the real power of that meaning can become apparent.
What is the outcome of effective Disability Inclusion action? An output might be that accessible technology is readily available, that recruitment is fairer, that workplaces are more accessible. But the outcome is that equity of access to opportunity and equal standing in the organizational community is no longer a ‘gift’ that can be withheld by action or constrained by inaction. It is a right and dignity that is acknowledged without ever having to be asked for.
The outputs are matters of process. The outcomes are matters of culture. Each influences the other. An ERG must seek to influence both, but its highest goal must be cultural change. Outputs are stepping-stones on the path to the outcome, but never the destination. The outcome is a ‘guiding light’. This is the foundation of the strategy for success.
Success is built on effective strategic planning.