Strategic planning has a mixed reputation. Some love it, and others love to hate it. At Be Clearly we see strategic planning as a powerful tool in the leadership toolbox, because when approached as an opportunity to engage stakeholders, it can unlock the power of people.
Strategic planning is meant to clarify vision, organize action, and inspire support for the work that you do. Done right, it promises to accelerate value to shareholders and stakeholders, stretching an organization toward its highest potential.
But the pace of change in business, society, and technology has quickened, making strategic planning less effective than in decades past. Leaders often do not have adequate exposure to all relevant risks and opportunities—and responding to those risks and opportunities frequently requires not only cooperation but personal buy-in from vast numbers of people.
To get the full value of strategic planning today means adopting a new planning model—one where leaders engage employees, customers, and communities in the planning process rather than making strategic decisions in relative isolation. At Be Clearly we call this discipline Strategic Engagement.
Chelan County PUD
Chelan County Public Utility District is the public entity that provides clean renewable electricity and other assorted utility services to the people of Chelan County—a population of approximately 75,000 located in the geographic center of the state of Washington.
Chelan PUD was formed in the 1930s by a vote of the people and tasked with constructing and operating a small handful of hydroelectric projects that together produce enough electricity to power more than 900,000 homes. Other power providers in the western states buy Chelan PUD’s surplus power—and as their hydro investments have matured, the PUD has found itself in a position of generating not only power but revenue. PUD leaders confront a challenging question: how to responsibly distribute the benefits of that revenue, now and in the future.
Chelan County PUD enjoys a legacy of large-scale projects and long-term thinking. As a public utility with hydroelectric assets, they regularly make plans that might have an effect for 50–100 years. So when their five year strategic plan came up for renewal at the beginning of 2014, new General Manager Steve Wright and the Board of Commissioners recognized the pivotal planning opportunity before them and opted to include not only all employees but thousands of members of the general public in their planning efforts—and called on Be Clearly to assist with the project.
A year later, Chelan County PUD’s strategic engagement endeavor is nearing culmination. In the end, more than 6,000 people made meaningful contributions to the plan. We hope that some of you will be inspired by their story, how it happened, and what we learned.
The building blocks of strategic engagement
Successful community engagement efforts share a few foundational building blocks.
a core leadership team comprised of diverse stakeholders
a conversational outreach approach based on a unique, compelling story
a custom set of strategies and an agile approach to achieving project goals
Read on to see how we applied these building blocks on behalf of Chelan County PUD.
A core leadership team comprised of diverse stakeholders
Because community engagement processes are by necessity people centered and people driven, starting with an enthusiastic, passionate and committed core group of leaders is essential.
In the case of the PUD, the citizens of the county elect a governing board and hold them to account. The Board in turn hires a GM, who relies on a management team to take care of operations across several divisions
All of the PUD’s board and management agreed to take part—but more importantly, also expressed a high level of commitment and a conviction that this effort was the right idea at the right time. This level of support is crucial. Successfully engaging a broad range of stakeholders is tricky. It becomes exceedingly difficult—if not impossible—if the CEO, the board, or the senior management team are misaligned. If even one of these parties in the “CEO sandwich” resists the effort on grounds of principle or politics, the results of the project will suffer.
A conversational outreach approach based on a unique, compelling story
The outreach mechanism in a Strategic Engagement campaign is a conversation, not a survey. This is a vital distinction. A conversation includes two-way communication, rounds of give and take, information sharing, and mutual learning.
A good conversation needs to be framed in a way that people can see themselves being part of it, and this meant creating a distinctive name and brand for the project—one that conveyed the spirit and value of the conversation.
The project team chose to name the conversation Our Public Power: the Next Generation. This name made the project inclusive—something the public could share a stake in. It conveyed the feeling of possibility and aspiration. It communicated that the conversation was about legacy—what we will leave for our children. It made the conversation bigger than a strategic plan—and bigger than the present moment. Most importantly, it helped participants broaden their perspective to consider not only their own concerns but what could be best for the most for the longest period of time.
The next step was to frame the effort as a compelling story. We did this by emphasizing the PUD’s planning effort as “the biggest moment since the dams were built.” This bold statement drew attention to the visionaries within the community who had the foresight to create Chelan County PUD 75 years prior, and whose wise investment still brings benefits today. That invitation to honor the foresight of the past generation inspired the present generation to undertake the same ambitious thinking on behalf of future generations.
A custom set of strategies and an agile approach to achieving project goals
Every Strategic Engagement project is different. For the remainder of this article, we will focus on a few of the PUD’s strategies that were most instrumental in organically growing participation and insights over time.
Diversify entry points.
To maximize the engagement "surface area," we produced a video to call people to participate, held a public launch event, invited middle school and high school students to participate so as to ensure a younger generation’s perspective, provided an open inbox for receiving unsolicited ideas, and undertook an ambitious social media campaign.
Optimize face time.
The PUD conducted more than 25 personal interviews with trusted community leaders and held 40 community meetings with different civic organizations around the county. Internally, PUD committees and staff also deployed a variety of employee engagement strategies.
Tap the power of digital interaction.
Be Clearly built a custom website to both educate the public about the PUD and enable the collection of over 1,100 distinct ideas describing how the PUD could improve quality of life in Chelan County. These ideas were narrowed down to 16 investment options and six reinvestment recommendations, which the public could rank online using an interactive prioritization process. Subsequent reporting and statistical data was then posted to showcase participants preferences and feedback. You can take a look at www.ourpublicpower.org.
Refine insights using rounds of conversation.
We convened six topic specific teams of public volunteers and employees to study and sift through the ideas collected online and distill them into the most relevant recommendations. We then sent these recommendations back out to the public via mail and our website for further prioritization and comment.
Create a broad coalition of diverse leaders.
We organized a group of more than 30 leaders from around the county, called Strategy Partners, for multiple rounds of meetings to offer their advice throughout the process and to make recommendations to the board.
These five strategies flowed together to grow shared understanding and support over time. Breadth and flexibility in the project allowed the various strategies to inform and build on one another.
In our next post we will describe some of the key learning from this strategic engagement project. Please sign up below for our PeopleCraft newswire to be notified of the next post.
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