Strategic Planning for Utility Vegetation Management Organizations

Strategic Planning for Utility Vegetation Management Organizations


By Derek Vannice, CN Utility Consulting Vice President of Operations, and Eric Duchinsky, Edison Solutions Owner and Business Development Professional

This article was published in the March/April 2013 issue of Utility Arborist Newsline.

Strategic planning is something big companies do with high-priced consultants, right? Wrong! Strategic planning is for everyone, from a large company to a vegetation management department, or even a small contractor. A famous quote says, “If you do not know where you are going, any road will take you there.” Do you know where your company is going?

Strategic planning is not complicated. It is not easy, either, but it is a straightforward, step-by-step process. Below is a how-to guide to help your organization go down the right road and get you where you want to go.

Brainstorming and ideas are easy. Implementation is hard. Ideas and innovation look to the future and implementation brings us back to reality. Strategic planning (which we’ll refer to as s-planning from here on out) combines both brainstorming and implementation.

Strategic Planning Made Easy

• The s-planning process begins with the mission and ends with a budget.

• All parts of the splan must be understandable to all employees. If they don’t own it, it won’t work.

• The s-plan process survives beyond the current employees or the leadership team. It does not contain personal agendas for the organization.

• Agree on concepts. Word-smithing and nit-picking bites. Some of the worst meetings are the ones focused on finding the exact, “correct” word or punctuation in a room full of non-writers who couldn’t pen a thoughtful thank you note, let alone a mission statement.

A good example is when a new president of the UAA stood up to make his opening speech. Traditionally, presidents use this time to outline their goals and objectives for the coming year. This president held up the organization’s strategic plan and said, “I will do my best to fulfill the mission and strategic plan of the organization.” He then sat down. Best speech ever!

Nine Steps

Follow these nine steps in order. The size and scope may differ based on the size of the organization, but the process is the same.

Form a team dedicated to strategic thinking. This may be your management team or a cross-section of employees. As the team steps through the process, focus primarily on strategic thinking. Try not to worry about or discuss the details of how tasks are done. This type of strategic-only thinking is an unnatural act for most of us. The nitty-gritty details draw our attention, because discussing details feels like we accomplish something.

Small organizations may find strategic thinking difficult, because the people developing strategies are the same people implementing the projects. In these cases, still separate the discussions into different meetings with different agendas. Pretend your team has multiple personalities: one for strategy and one for implementation.

Step 1: Define the Mission

S-planning starts with a mission. If one exists for your organization, pull it off the shelf and dust it off. Even if you do not want or need to change the mission, start with Step 1 and give the s-planning team time for recommitting to the mission. The mission is what your organization is about, or why it exists. Think of the mission lasting 100 years. Do not spend all your time worrying about the exact wording in the mission. Just make sure it is understandable to all of your employees and explains why you exist as an organization.

A good example is Starbucks’ mission: To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.

This statement is simple, long lasting and inspirational to all employees. It’s perfect. Think about what we do as an industry: we keep the lights on, we save lives … you get the idea. In addition, your mission should be placed where all of your members can see it.

Step 2: Define Core Values

Core values define the soul of the business, or the ethical and cultural boundaries used to make decisions and guide how the organization treats customers and employees. This can be accomplished with a simple exercise where you ask each person in the room to list what they value most in the organization. Have each employee read his and her lists out loud. You will be surprised what you learn. Then compare lists and come to a consensus.

A good example is: Our company is an important and active part of the communities in which we work and live. F O C U S O N C O – O P S A N D M U N I C I P A L I T I E S Strategic Planning for Utility vegetation Management organizations By Derek Vannice, CN Utility Consulting Vice President of Operations, and Eric Duchinsky, Edison Solutions Owner and Business Development Professional STeP #1 STeP #2 November–December 2012 Page 13 In addition, your company’s new hire orientation should include a review of the core values. Building an organizational culture starts with clear expectations of boundaries.

Now you have defined why you exist and what you value. You have set the constraints that you will work within. The next steps will define where you are and where you want to go.

Step 3: Define Where You Are

Use one or both of these tools to identify your organization’s current status: SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) and PEST (Political, Economic, Socio-cultural and Technological). Some groups use SWOT one year and PEST the next year in an annual review process. This should be an open brainstorming exercise and be all-inclusive.

Many examples flood the Internet, but below are two very brief samples. Try these links for more complete samples and templates: htm and swotanalysisfreetemplate.htm.

Step 4: Define Where You Want To Go

This step involves creating end statements. Sometimes these are known as vision statements or goals. It does not matter what you call them; use whatever works best for your organization. For the purpose of this exercise, we will use end statements, because to us it best describes a place you will arrive.

Try this great exercise for creating end statements: ask the team members to write news headlines for a future date. This keeps the end statements short and to the point.

Statements should support your mission and fit your core values. You should also be able to clearly identify where you are going based on these statements, so you know when you get there. We suggest not having more than five, but that is up to you.

A good example is: XYZ Tree Company is the industry leader in safety innovations.

Step 5: Define Objectives

This is where the rubber meets the road, as we move into the implementation part of s-planning. Objectives focus on methods of bridging the gap between where you are today and where you want to go. Objectives must combine and apply the SWOT and PEST information to turn the “feel good” mission and end statements into something more concrete and (more importantly) measureable. Time for completion can vary from one to three years.

Develop objectives in smaller groups. After brainstorming in smaller groups, bring these back to the big group. The complete group can combine similar objectives and prioritize the final versions using a voting exercise.

A good example is to list all the objectives on a wall under their corresponding end statements using large paper or a dry erase board. Give each member of the s-planning group 10 stickers. They can use their 10 “votes” on 10 objectives they like best or all 10 “votes” on one objective they like the best. After everyone places their 10 stickers, stand back and review the prioritized objectives. This simple and fun exercise lessens endless circular debates and any hurt feelings from perceived attacks on pet projects.

In addition, make sure to list and discuss the possible metrics needed to evaluate each objective so everyone knows when an objective is reached.

The Home Stretch

Depending on the size of the organization, the s-planning team can call it a day at this point. The responsibility of the s-planning team technically ends with setting the objectives. In a smaller company, the work continues. You can smooth the transition or “hand off” to the working groups/ committees by suggesting possible tactics for reaching the objectives. People being people, the s-planning team will find it very difficult to refrain from telling the working groups what to do. Understand any “suggestions” are just that; the working groups can choose to use, or choose not to use, the ideas.

Up to this point, we have outlined the traditional strategic planning process. In most organizations, everyone stretches, pats each other on the back for accomplishing the tough job, and goes home happy. Top organizations print posters for the walls, consider how to implement the new objectives, and post them on the website.

But true strategic planning takes 30,000-foot worldview concepts down to day-to-day operations. The next steps are where the strategic plan becomes a working document. Many times, we have seen an organization spend time and money developing a strategic plan and then puts it on a shelf and looks at it five years later, if at all.

Step 6: Build Tactics and Budgets

The next step is to review the objectives and develop tactics. Tactics should be tasks that can be completed within three to 12 months. Key points when thinking about tactics include:

• One employee should be assigned accountability and responsibility for each tactic’s completion. This does not necessarily mean that he or she has to do it alone; he or she just needs to make sure it gets done.

• A budget should be set.

• A completion date should be set.

• Tactics should help achieve objectives, work toward the related ends statement, and stay within the constraints of the mission and core values.

Essentially, the tactics are: who does what, by when, using how much money.

A good example is: Joe Arborist will write a monthly column for the company e-newsletter on new safety innovations. The column will be completed by the tenth of each month, and there will be no direct cost.

Step 7: Finalize Budgets with Matching Metrics

During this step, staff discusses and builds a budget reflecting the objectives set forth by the s-planning team. Rational and accurate budgets build trust, and they take effort.

Over-achieving budget targets point to bad budgeting assumptions just as much as unsuccessful performance against metrics.

A good example is: The team might set an objective to “grow revenues 10 percent.” The last three years of history average 3 percent. A draft budget plan outlines the operational metrics, necessary capital investments, staff time and a three times increase in expenses essential to achieving 10 percent revenue growth. The draft budgets go back through to the decision makers. They decide if the coming year’s operations match the objectives outlined in the s-planning process and measure the risks.

Here is where disconnects occur. Creating a budget places a price tag on the mission statement, objectives and end statements. Sometimes the budget decision makers forget the connection. Maximizing net revenues and other “priorities” creep into the process. They may forget that the budget is a tool for implementing tactics that build systems, reach metrics, meet objectives, support end statements and link the organization to its mission. If the budget decision makers forget the connection, then they may suggest a deep cut in expenses, because all they see is a three times increase in budget needed to achieve 10 percent growth. More than likely, the expenses are cut, but the 10 percent increase in revenue target remains. This is just plain wrong and begs for failure.

Conversely, if the budget is approved (with the increase in expenses), and the money is not spent, then the splan also fails.

Step 8: Build Metrics into Staff Performance Targets

The tactics and metrics developed by the team now make it to individual performance goals. Here lies the main reason the staff must understand the process and each piece of the plan. They must buy into their goals and how these goals fit into the grand scheme of the organization.

Step 9: Follow-up Every Year

Once the initial year is completed, follow up is easier and takes less time.

Step 1: Quick look at mission. All agree? Move on.

Step 2: Core values still the same? Good. Move on.

Step 3: Review and celebrate accomplishments, including all maintenance tasks. Applaud what was completed. In a direct, open and honest way, discuss why some things were not done. There could be very good reasons why specific tactics did not get completed.

Step 4: Where does the group want to go? Remove unrealistic and achieved objectives. Add new ones, if necessary.

Steps 5-9: The same. Why change a good system?

The annual s-planning process concentrates on steps 3, 4 and 5. Steps 6 through 9 make up sound budgeting practices.

Things to Ignore

People actually argue over s-planning terminology. No one can live on the difference between a goal and an objective or the necessity of having both vision and mission statements. How do these discussions build better budgets, performance metrics or corporate cultures? Stick with these steps and your organization will outpace those stuck in debates. Let the English and business graduate students debate the exact verbiage over $5 pitchers.

Good luck!

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