Sharing experiences with strategic planning methodologies -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Sharing experiences with strategic planning methodologies

It is often said that what really determines the eventual success or failure of the planning processes is not so much what you put in, but what you leave out. Oftentimes, seemingly well-made strategic plans give way at the seams because a key influencing factor has been ignored or, more often, not given the attention it deserved. While it is impossible to include every possible scenario into an exercise which, at best, seeks to approximate the future, it is possible to instill a sense of discipline in the process that helps increase the probability of the plan’s success.

HFH Asia/Pacific has had varied experiences with creating and implementing strategic plans at various levels—from area-wide organizational plans to departmental plans and from individual country plans to homeowner group plans. This article provides a brief overview of how strategic planning has become an integral part of HFH Asia/Pacific.

The three-year PME cycle

In the latter half of the 1990s, strategic planning truly became an intrinsic and integral part of program management at HFH Asia/Pacific. The creation of a Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation (PME) department undoubtedly served to underline the importance of planning as a crucial aspect of the program management cycle. Under its direction, a three-year PME cycle was adopted for national organizations and affiliate programs.

The cycle rolled out as follows: For a new program, the planning exercise consisted of short-range 18-month plans with a review after 12 months. The initial exercise relied on the experience and vision of the advisory group/board and was guided by Habitat for Humanity’s vision, mission and principles. The experience was enriched by the international perspective of HFHI’s representatives and the knowledge of the country and the housing situation contributed by the national Habitat leaders and partners. The 12-month review of the plan was an ideal opportunity to take stock, course-correct and move on, adjusting targets as necessary.

When the program, after a couple of such cycles, had gained enough experience about implementing Habitat’s vision in the project area, it eased into the three-year cycle. The three-year cycle began with the creation of a three-year strategic plan. This plan, informed by the experiences of the past years and guided by a more realistic expectation of what was achievable, spelled out key strategies that would take the program close to achieving its three-year vision. This plan would then form the framework within which the annual plan for the first year was created. This annual plan would again provide the background for short three-month implementation plans that would be adopted by every department in the program. These plans were benchmarked by indicators of progress, which would be closely monitored to measure whether plan implementation was on track.

At the end of the first year, the program was encouraged to do a self-evaluation to measure how it had fared against the targets set out in the annual plan and against the larger goals of the strategic plan. Based on this self-evaluation, the program revised targets and created an annual plan for the second year. The same process of creating quarterly implementation plans, regular monitoring of the same and minor course-correction was carried out. At the end of the second year, again, the program undertook a self-evaluation exercise leading to an annual plan for the third year.

The end of the third year marked a transition to the next three-year cycle. At this point, programs were encouraged to undertake a full-fledged participatory evaluation of the program to measure its achievements and evaluate the efficacy and efficiency of the strategies employed in the last three years to bring the program closer to its vision. This evaluation was useful in giving the program a clear idea as to how the strategies adopted over the past three years had served the program in realizing its three-year vision. Armed with this knowledge and an updated environmental scan, the program could then proceed to develop its next three-year strategic plan.

This has been the broad approach that Asia/Pacific has adopted toward better program management for the past several years. It has worked extremely well with certain programs, while it has been less successful with others. A few have modified the structure to better suit their reality while others have increased the rigor in the same.

Methodologies adopted in strategic planning

While HFH Asia/Pacific has not prescribed any one methodology to be adopted for strategic planning, two approaches have been used over the years in several programs with fairly effective results.

The ICA Strategic Planning approach

The Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) strategic planning method is a group process spread over two days. This group process is the ICA Workshop process, designed to arrive at a consensus on key focus questions among large numbers of participants. The strategic planning exercise uses four workshop processes, two on each day of the program.

The workshops follow a logical sequence, with each one building on the results of the last:

  • Practical vision. The group seeks to collectively define a common three- to five-year vision for the future that is based on reality and mirrors the aspirations of a multi-stakeholder group.
  • Contradictions. The group seeks to articulate the blockages and the perceived obstacles to the attainment of this vision. Care is taken to word these obstacles not as the “lack of” or “absence of” anything, but as descriptions of blockages that can be overcome by taking certain actions.
  • Strategic directions. The group comes up with three to five strategies that would not only address the contradictions but would enable the program to achieve its practical vision.
  • Action planning. The strategic directions are further processed into the first-year action plan and further three-month action plans, fixing timelines and assigning responsibilities.

This approach has proved to be a systematic way to design a logical and articulate plan, which has within its structure the keys to good implementation and monitoring of the same.

Appreciative Planning and Action (APA)[1]

Developed by Dr. Malcolm Odell Jr., from Appreciative Inquiry (AI), this approach utilizes AI’s philosophy of “building on the positive” to strategic and action planning. The approach uses the “4 Ds of Appreciative Inquiry”:

  • Discovery: Discovering the best of what is.
  • Dream: Dreaming of "even better."
  • Design: Devising strategies to get there.
  • Delivery: Detailing next steps.

Dr. Odell added three more Ds to the process, namely "Do It Now!"; "Discussion and Dialogue"; and "Dance and Drum" to give the approach a much-needed emphasis on immediate action to get started and celebration of this achievement.

APA’s exercises allow the use of creative methods in outlining a plan including artwork, modeling, role play and group dialogue. This makes it adaptable at virtually any level of an organization from boards to homeowner groups. The discovery exercise is a key exercise as it seeks to uncover the successes of the past and what made it possible to create these successes.

APA was used extensively among homeowners in Sri Lanka and Nepal to create strategic plans for homeowners' associations and savings groups, based on celebrating success and dreaming bigger.

Recognizing the power of recounting the successes of the past and building on the same, the discovery module was used as an introductory module for a traditional ICA strategic planning workshop in Bangladesh. The difference it created was amazing. A high degree of excitement was visible among the participants as they relived the successes of the past three years and debated on the root causes of this success. The practical vision they came up with in the next session was based on what they had achieved in the past and were proud of, and displayed the willingness and ability to dream even bigger.

Naresh Karmelkar is a planning, monitoring and evaluation adviser for HFH in Asia and the Pacific.


[1] For more details on the process of Appreciative Inquiry, please refer to the “International Affiliate Update,” March/April 2001, on PartnerNet.