What goes in the lay of the land?

January 31, 2011

Filed under: Strategic Planning — Tags: — jonathanpoisner @ 4:43 pm

I’ve spent some time today thinking about the “lay of the land” and what goes into it in an effective strategic planning process.

The “lay of the land” is a term of art used by some to describe a series of statements about the world that forms the context for the strategic plan.   I actually personally prefer the language “strategic assumptions” to describe these statements.

They may be statements of fact, predictors of the future, or statements that constitute a theory of change about why the activities you pursue lead to the goals or outcomes you desire.

An example of a fact would be: the population of Oregon is 3,825,657 as of July 2009.  Or: The U.S. Senate currently is controlled by a Democratic majority and the House by a Republican majority.

An example of a predictor would be:  The proportion of the population older than 65 is slated to rise from X% to Y% over the next 10 years.  Or: The U.S. Congress will remain highly polarized along partisan lines over the next 5 years.

An example of a theory of change statement would be:  Members of Congress are more likely to vote as an organization desires if they feel it can help them win their next reelection or if they fear it may target them for defeat.  Or: Lobbyists with long-time relationships with members of the state legislature are better positioned to get legislators to cast tough votes.

I have seen strategic plans that boil down this section to a couple of paragraphs.  And I’ve seen a strategic plan that contained 6 pages of very dense demographic information.

As is often the case, I’m not a fan of either extreme.

The importance of including strategic assumptions is that making assumptions explicit almost always help people get on the same page.  I often find that when two people are arguing “past each other,” it’s usually because they have different underlying assumptions and don’t realize it.

Making your assumptions explicit also provides a very useful tool to determine when, if ever, you should revisit your plan.  The answer — when one of your key assumptions proves to not be true.

If folks have examples of lay of the land sections from their strategic plan they’d be willing to share with me, I’m interested in seeing more.

And if you have thoughts about what has or has not worked in your own strategic planning processes, please share them.

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