By Patricia Montague, CAE 2018-02-07 13:27:28
Let the key mile markers in the process be your guide in developing a targeted, achievable plan. In “Strategic Planning: The Why,” on page 24, School Nutrition offered some compelling reasons why school nutrition professionals at different job levels should participate in a periodic, formal strategic planning process. You’re intrigued. But where do you start? How do you proceed? There’s no single, definitive, “right” way to go about strategic planning. In fact, there are hundreds of books and articles dedicated to the topic, each espousing a particular process. It’s easy to get overwhelmed if you let yourself get bogged down in the steps and lose sight of the inherent definitions of the focal words: “strategic” and “plan.” At its most fundamental, strategic planning simply means taking a thoughtful, intentional approach to developing a roadmap for future action. YOUR PROCESS IS YOUR PROCESS When you break strategic planning down to the essential elements, the process is one that can be adapted in small and large school nutrition operations alike, not to mention different configurations of state affiliates and local chapters. The resulting final Plan can be short and sweet, a single page or require collating; it depends on the size and complexity of the operation or team that is developing its strategic plan. Your approach also may vary depending on the expected level of engagement of the participants in this activity. You won’t get helpful insights from people who sit passively without contributing. Nor will it be helpful to include those who are steadfastly resistant to change. Although everyone on the team will be critical to implementing your Plan, its development should involve team members whose position, expertise or personality (or all three) will prove helpful to the process. What all this means is that your strategic planning process could range from a two-day retreat involving a dozen or more stakeholders to a hold-the-phones-and-forbid-interruptions daylong gathering of your “kitchen cabinet” to a series of periodic meetings with all managers and supervisors. That is, it’s whatever works best for you. This article is designed to identify and explain the conventional wisdom when it comes to fundamental strategic planning best practices that work across a range of circumstances. We’ll also look at the individual components of a formal strategic plan, so you have a sense of the resulting document you’re attempting to craft. Even if you and your team ultimately choose to depart from some of these specific steps or elements, you’ll understand the intent behind the advice, so you can make an informed decision. WHO’S DOING THE WORK? The most effective strategic planning process will rely on the guidance of a skilled facilitator. This individual may be hired as a consultant or be a talented volunteer. For school nutrition operations, you may want to look to someone who works elsewhere in the district. For associations, you might want to tap someone from the state or national level. You’ll note that SN doesn’t recommend that the current team leader facilitate the process. Although SN doesn’t recognize that the constraints of time and budget make this a popular practice in many districts or smaller associations, there are several advantages to using an outside facilitator. You can expect that someone from the outside will be more objective; she or he won’t have a preconceived agenda or set of outcomes. This individual is likely to ask the group questions that may not occur to you—and an experienced facilitator also should be adept at getting everyone to contribute. Of course, if your facilitator is from outside your group, you will have to spend time getting him or her up to speed. You will need to explain specifics related to your operation, as well as jargon and the basic expectations you have for the process. A strategic-minded team leader certainly could draft a simple strategic plan all on their own. But a collaborative approach is almost always more effective—especially if you will be relying on others to make the plan work. Definitely involve your senior team members. But also consider getting input from those who are somewhat removed from your immediate group. In school nutrition, you might consider inviting the business manager, school nurse, physical education chair or even a member of the community to join you. Make sure the number of participants reflects the scope of your plan. If you are developing a far-reaching, multi-year plan that touches on every aspect of your operation, you’ll want to involve a representative group (but no more than 25 people). If you are laser-focused on one area, a smaller planning team is appropriate. Regardless of the origin of the facilitator, and the number of participants, be advised that the planning group or committee and the team leader—the school nutrition director, executive director or president—must “own” the results of the process. Support and promotion of the plan starts with you. You will not get buy-in on the resulting goals or tactics from other stakeholders if you and your planning team aren’t fully on board with the plan—and how you got there. To maintain an effective strategic focus even when the official planning process has concluded, consider developing a continuous “parallel process” that involves a wide range of staff and other stakeholders. Task them with periodic scanning of the internal and external strategic environment. Ask them to identify current and anticipated key challenges facing the team. Engage them in considering the implications of revised or refreshed goals, objectives and tactics. STRATEGIC PLANNING IN A NUTSHELL Every function in the strategic planning process revolves around these five questions: 1) Where are we now? 2) What is changing in our environment that will affect us? 3) Where do we want to be? 4) How do we get there? 5) How will we know when we get there? WHAT’S THE TIMELINE? A multi-year strategic planning session typically is conducted over the course of a two-day meeting. This presents quite a challenge across most professions and organizations, as time is an increasingly precious commodity for all. It’s worth it, of course, if you’re developing a roadmap that is going to guide your efforts for the next two or three years! Still, it’s becoming more common for teams to break down strategic planning conversations into the component parts and spread these out over multiple meetings. For example, environmental scanning data (see page 34), such as enrollment trends, community demographics, financial analyses and so on, may be shared at one meeting, with discussion on what such data mean for the operation. You can choose to tackle the vision and mission at another meeting a few weeks later. Regardless of whether you’ll do it all at once or in a series of meetings, look at your calendar to identify the least-hectic times of year. In schools, this may be late October or early November, after the back-to-school rush and before special holiday events. Some districts do this as part of back-to-school preparations, with a follow-up mid-year. The point is that you want your strategic planning participants focused, as much as possible, on this task. STRATEGIC PLANNING IS A POWERFUL TOOL When done well, strategic planning: • Aligns the school nutrition operation from top to bottom • Is agile and responsive to the latest external trends • Focuses limited resources on the most important outcomes • Represents a common, agreed-upon basis for making key decisions • Supports performance management • Enables the school nutrition leadership team to make the difficult decisions about scaling back or terminating programs and activities COMPONENTS OF A STRATEGIC PLAN There are a number of key component parts of a strategic plan that provide both long-term purpose for the group or organization, as well as its tactical operating steps. The process of defining—and possibly redefining—each of these forms the core of a formal strategic planning process. Going forward in this article, we’ll offer examples and descriptions that are somewhat specific to school nutrition operations, rather than applicable to any type of organization or group. Be sure to read “Strategic Planning: A Glossary,” beginning on page 34, for more comprehensive definitions of many of the terms that follow. 1) VISION STATEMENT. This should set the overall direction for the school nutrition program and should be bold and inspirational. The vision describes the “what” and the “why” for everything you do. An example of a vision statement for a school nutrition program could be: Providing nutritious and delicious universal meals to all students in XYZ School District. 2) MISSION STATEMENT. This typically describes “what” you do, for “who” and “how.” Focusing on your mission each day should enable you to reach your vision. Here is a sample: We work together in a spirit of inclusivity and integrity to serve healthy school meals to all students. 3) CORE VALUES. These describe the collective beliefs and behaviors of the team and are intended to be those that are integral to achieving the vision and mission. Typically, an organization has no more than five core values. Potential core values for a school nutrition operation might include: • Passion: Caring for the students we serve every school day. • Wellness: Providing healthy school meals and nutrition education to students. • Collaboration: Working with key stakeholders to ensure school meals are an integral part of the academic day. • Professional Development: Encouraging and supporting staff in professional growth efforts. 4) SWOT ANALYSIS. This acronym stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Identifying these will help guide your priorities. Are any of these examples applicable in your department? • Strengths: Well-trained staff, increasing enrollment, low turnover • Weaknesses: Limited labor pool, decreasing participation, aging kitchens • Opportunities: School breakfast, supper program, new grants, supportive new superintendent • Threats: Decrease in government funding, competition from Uber-Eats 5) STRATEGIC GOALS. This is arguably the most important component of the strategic plan. These establish the highest-level outcomes you seek for your operation, so give careful consideration to select those that will maximize the mission impact for your customer—the students—and other stakeholders. Resist the temptation to simply organize your operation’s current activities and call these your “goals.” Remember, strategic goals are intended to drive change and create a future state in which the vision and mission is significantly advanced. There should be a limited number of such goals, perhaps three to five, that will force prioritization and decision-making that is focused on support of your vision. A common strategic planning pitfall is selecting too many goals; this can dilute your impact and overwhelm you and your team. Likewise, guard against making goals that are so broad and vague that almost any achievement could be seen as successful completion. Don’t fear vigorous debate about goal selection! This can result in powerful goals that inspire and motivate the necessary work to complete them. Potential examples include: • Operational Excellence: We will increase scratch preparation in order to support local farms and produce higher-quality meals for students. • Customer Service Excellence: We will expand and diversify menu offerings in order to enhance student engagement. • Innovation: We will incorporate technological innovations in order to enhance program operations and the student experience. • Sustainability: We will focus efforts on increasing student participation in order to ensure our program is financially sustainable. 6) OBJECTIVES. These represent the most important outcomes that will aid in the realization of the goals. For each goal, three to five objectives are optimal. Smaller school nutrition programs may have more objectives than large programs. Objectives should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-determined (SMART). As with the goals, you are still more focused on the “what,” rather than the “how.” Ask: “What would constitute success in measurable terms? How much? By when?” Use action verbs: increase, expand, decrease, reduce, consolidate, eliminate, improve, enhance and so on. You want to be as clear and unambiguous as possible. Using the sample goals suggested above, we’ve drafted related objectives: » Operational Excellence • Objective: Increase school breakfast participation by 10% over the next two years. » Customer Service Excellence • Objective: Introduce a minimum of four new menu items that meet student acceptability criteria. » Innovation • Objective: Expand student engagement by 5% through use of social media tools. » Sustainability • Objective: Increase meals per labor hour by 5% over the next year. STRATEGIC PLANNING IS A POWERFUL TOOL When done poorly, strategic planning: • Locks the school nutrition operation into inflexible plans for extended periods • Saps everyone’s creativity and innovation • Is an enormous administrative drain for staff • Focuses on minutiae, missing the big picture • Wastes precious time debating the process to be followed, rather than considering the key strategic issues 7) STRATEGIES. Envisioning goals and then defining the strategies you’ll embrace to achieve your objectives is the true essence of strategic planning. Now, we’re moving to the “how” of the equation. We’re ready to identify specific activities and programs that will help us reach each objective identified through the planning process. Because strategies describe how the school nutrition operation will commit resources to accomplish each goal, this is a critical step! Strategies should be written to be accomplished within a specific timeframe and progress should be reviewed periodically by your operation’s leadership team. For each strategy, ask: • Is it necessary to achieve satisfactory progress toward the goal? • Is it reasonable to expect effective implementation? • Are we best positioned to execute this strategy? • If this and the other strategies for this goal are implemented, are we likely to achieve satisfactory progress toward the goal? Be specific. Once again, use action verbs: redesign, refine, create, identify, revise, develop, implement, establish. Let’s build on our sample goals and objectives: » Operational Excellence • Objective: Increase school breakfast participation by 10% over the next two years. > Strategy: Implement breakfast in the classroom in 5 elementary schools and second-chance breakfast at the middle and high school in the next two years. » Customer Service Excellence • Objective: Introduce a minimum of four new menu items that meet student acceptability criteria. > Strategy: Introduce a new student or parent survey instrument to assess customer satisfaction with menu items. » Innovation • Objective: Expand student engagement by 5% through use of social media tools. > Strategy: Assign social media responsibilities to one staff member with the goal of posting at least 4 items each week that school is in session. » Sustainability • Objective: Increase meals per labor hour by 5% over the next year. > Strategy: Provide kitchen staff with training in “working smarter” techniques. NEXT STEP: STRATEGIC EXECUTION A strategic plan establishes a process approach to begin thinking about the future of your school nutrition operation. Next, you will need to begin planning the tactics that support your strategies. Check this month’s online extras for suggestions about this step (www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazine bonus). You’re never truly “finished” with strategic planning. It is an ongoing process that requires monitoring, tracking and reporting the results. The results of a strategic plan should live in a report or dashboard—a tech tool that provides a snapshot of the organization’s progress toward its strategic plan at any given point. These reports help keep staff on track and focused on the plan. In addition, you should hold regularly scheduled formal reviews of the plan to refine objectives and strategies as necessary. Strategic planning is a wonderful management tool—no matter the size or configuration of your team or operation. It can help you innovate in ways you never thought possible. But before leading a strategic planning effort on your own, continue to learn as much as you can in order to coordinate an effective process! Patricia Montague is chief executive officer of the School Nutrition Association.
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