Seven critical factors for a successful Participatory Strategic Planning (PSP)

In early 2015 I conducted a Participatory Strategic Planning for a consultancy business. For this I applied the Participatory Strategic Planning (PSP)  approach, which has been developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs
The Strategic Planning consists of six key steps,
0. Intake formulation of the focus question
1.  Formulation / Review  Mission, values/ Trend analysis and environmental scan;
2.  Practical Vision;
3.  Underlying contradictions;
4.  Strategic Directions;
5.  Operational planning.

The method

Step 0: Intake and formulating the focus question
Before step 1 takes place in the strategic planning process, an essential step is necessary, to move forward.  This is the intake and the formulation of the focus question.
The ownership of the organizational change starts at the intake. Asking the right questions and getting the right people at the table are crucial conditions for enabling a successful strategic planning.  The focus question is the starting point of the  participatory strategic planning, through which the progress of the planning is monitored. This question is a perfect guide in monitoring the development of the client’s and group’s ownership during the planning process.

Step 1: Values, Identity, Mission, Trendanalysis and Environmental scan
Shared values ​​and identity build the foundation, why people commit themselves to a group or organization. Increasingly, identity and values are the pillars for an organizational strategic plan.  They are part of the mission statement, that explicity answers the question ‘Why are we as organisation on earth?’
The trendanalysis is a tool that analyzes the development  taking place in the context, which are influencing the organization. During the environmental scan opportunities and threats are mapped in a systematic manner. Both tools will help to answer the question if the existing organizational mission is still relevant or need to be modified.

Step 2: Practical Vision
This phase builds on the dreams and the positive energy of the group. In an associative way, the participants create a new perspective of the future of the organization or group. At the end, participants have defined a vision for a defined period of time.

Step 3: Underlying obstacles
Before participants reflect on the  strategic priorities for the future, they look at the underlying obstacles that hinder them in achieving their future goals. During this session, a self-reflective process is facilitated in researching the current situation why the organization is not realizing their future dreams. This phase helps to take a step back and observe from a distance and have a fresh watch at the current reality.  This is a crucial phase were the transformation is taking place.  Participants can not blame others, but are guided in a thorough process of self reflection.

Step 4: Strategic Directions
Once the blocks have been mapped, the group starts with the formulation of the strategic priorities. This phase helps the group to formulate a new strategic focus that will deal with the opportunities and the threats.  The challenge is to provide a new perspective on the current situation. In this session participants will be challenged to develop new products & services, identify new markets and new modes of working. 

Step 5: Operational planning
Based on the selected strategies, the group defines a one-year plan including milestones and a three months operational plan. During this phase tasks and responsibilities will be divided. Commitments will be made on the implementation and monitoring the progress of this plan.  It is crucial in this stage that the conditions and available resources in time and money are communicated to enable the implementation of the operational plan.

Critical factors for Success
There are 7 critical factors, which determine if a Participatory Strategic Planning will become a success.

1. The Intake, ensuring commitment from the leadership
The intake is a crucial phase in the PSP. From the beginning to the end the senior management has to take ownership of the process. During the whole process of planning up to implementation the senior management has to lead and to monitor the development of the focus question and the implementation of the plan. Will the key question be answered?  If the leadership does not take their full responsibility the process is doomed to fail.

2. Quality of participants
The quality of participants will determine the outcome and successful implementation of the plan. Not only senior management should be involved, but also staff from all levels in the organization. Diversity ,  knowledge and views from different perspectives to bring in as much viewpoints as possible. An adequate selection of participants is needed for a successful outcome of the participatory strategic planning.

3. Quality of facilitation
The quality and experience of the facilitator will be of crucial importance in helping the group to explore new territory. The facilitator not only needs to know about attractive and innovative facilitation methods, but also is required to know how to deal with group dynamics,  emotions of fear and anger and moments of unexpected resistance. Resistance and conflict are valuable moments for facilitating change.

4. Conditions for implementing the strategic plan should be clear
The conditions for implementing the change and the strategic plan should be clear from the beginning. Staff from the organization should know from the beginning how much time, resources and support from the senior management is available for implementing the strategic plan. The commitment and seriousness from the management should be clear and therefore, they need to communicate these conditions clearly during the participatory strategic planning event.  Especially time for doing for example training, skills development or innovation should be allocated by the senior management. If staff do not get the extra time and the resources to implement changes, a successful implementation is doomed to fail.

5. Follow-up
Plans get adjusted all the time.  Most strategic plans get adjusted during the implementation due to unforeseen changes in the contextual environment, changes in the organizaiton or change of staff.  Mostly a plan is implemented successful in case an organization is able to adjust the path during the journey. A good plan is more than half of the work, but a successful strategy can only be implemented if the organization is able to deal with the challenges it meets on the road. Therefore,  regular follow-up     (at least (bi) monthly) is needed ensure a successful implementation. 

6. Documentation is done by the organization
It is not the facilitator who is doing the documentation of the participatory strategic plan, but it is required that the organization is documenting and writing the strategic plan themselves. If real commitment comes from the senior management, it is up to them to write, document and disseminate the strategic plan. In most cases when the strategic plan is written by the facilitator, it becomes a paper tiger and ends in a desk drawer. So, it is important during the intake and preparation of the participatory strategic planning to make the client responsible for the documentation and dissemination of the strategic plan.

7. Keep the momentum and ensure that implementation continues straight after the participatory strategic planning event
Due to the participatory process many participatory strategic planning events gain a lot of enthousiasm, joy and energy with the group. Therefore, it is important that the momentum is continued after the strategic planning event.  The participants should become the owners of the implementation process and the senior management must have the courage to trust, to facilitate and delegate parts of the implementation to the staff. Every moment of delay in the process, will take away the energy and the momentum with the staff in the organization. So the energy and the momentum should be continued. Therefore it is important that the working groups, that are created at the end of the participatory strategic planning have formulated challenging milestones for the quarters to come.  If they have the opportunity to celebrate a victory within considerable time, the energy can be maintained and continued.

A book I can really recommend and is worthwhile reading, is the book ‘TransformationalStrategy’ written by Bill Staples. It describes the process of participatory strategic planning in detail, it puts the method in today’s context and it gives some helpful and useful tips and tools on how to facilitate it effectively. The book contains some valuable case studies from the profit and non-profit sector and it provides some checklist on how you prepare a successful participatory strategic planning.   See>>>  TransformationalStrategy’ written by Bill Staples.  The Participatory Strategic is part of the Technology of Participation methods (TOP). 


  1. I like your seven points, Simon. I have always spent lots of time on documentation, so it looks good and gets out quickly. How do you coordinate having senior management do the documentation and finalize the plan with getting the implementation going quickly?? I also appreciate your point of having clarity in advance what resources are allotted for the implementation. Do you have stories and / or guidelines to share for how to do this?

  2. Great post, thanks Simon. I reviewed Bills's book at

  3. Martin, thanks for sharing. Yes, indeed Transformational Strategy from Bill Staples is a very useful and practical book. Thanks for sharing your blogpost.

  4. Jim, thanks for your questions. Normally my client arranges a secretary or an office manager to do the documentation. They make photos from all the outcomes from the workshops and then rework it to a document. After the participatory strategic planning I share samples with the senior management and advice them on how they can further transfer all the results from the workshops in a documented strategic plan. I already arrrange this during the intake. Of course it makes it easier for the client if all the documentation is done by the facilitator, but over more than 20 years experience it is less effective for the implementation. If the senior management has to sweat and work on it after the PSP event it is more effective and durable and they remind better what they have decided. It also happens that participants write each a chapter of the strategic plan. So the structure and outline is proposed by me,, and then tasks are divided under the management team members or stafff and then they write the strategic plan themselves, and somebody,, mostly an office manager, assembles and completes the strategic plan. Really, the organization has to show blood, sweat and tears to become owner of their own strategic plan. Yes, clarity about resources. Yes, I have som examples in my early days when I did strategic plannings with African communities in the Netherlands. By that time a lot of plans were made on assumptions, such as getting soft loans or funds. When it appeared in the follow ups, that nothing was done and groups got discouraged, since then I discuss with the senior management that they can only implement the strategic plan based on what is at the moment of the planning available, and not what is assumed to be available in the future. Since then my participatory strategic planning event have become much more effective. Even when I did 4 years ago a strategic planning for a volunteer assocation for peer to peer coaching for people getting deaf. At the end of the strategic planning they became aware, that with the available resources they could not invest their time to implement change. At that time it became clear, what already existed underneath for a long time. Their was not commitment to continue, and a couple of months later the group decided to dissolve themselves. This can also be a result of a partcipatory strategic planning, but then people accept that something has to die, if it has to die. Otherwise people get frustrated and can even have conflicts over years. So therefore, it is crucial to communicate about the available resources and time during the strategic planning. It makes a lot underneath feelings visible and discussable.

  5. Wonderful article Simon. Thanks for sharing. Very useful.

  6. Luc, thanks for your compliments. In what way is it useful for you?


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