Six Big Stakeholder Opportunities in Planning Strategy

Taking the potential for stress out of planning isn’t easy. In fact, though it’s usually unnecessary, anxiety is a reasonable thing to expect.

Hot Docs, Strategy, Brett Hendrie
Hot Docs Three-Year Plan video

Here’s an example of where an organization engaged various stakeholders in a series of collaborative events, collected feedback, insights, and suggestions and then turned them into a dynamic 3-year plan.

What are the 6 opportunities to dismiss anxiety and, instead, engage in collaborative goal setting?

  • Engage to identify the needs and aspirations of stakeholders, in particular, customers. Don’t forget the staff are stakeholders too.
  • Put time and resources aside to prepare for participation; collect insights and suggestions.
  • Set organizational goals in collaboration with the stakeholders.
  • Foster greater acceptance by staff of the need to take responsibility for developing and implementing plans that work in the rough and tumble of the real world.
  • Follow through on the learning and insights by sharing the plan widely.
  • Help stakeholders achieve value from the collaborative learning – you’ll need them as you implement the plan.

More tips:

Avoid SWOT thinking that emphasizes analyzing the weaknesses and threats.

We have been indoctrinated to believe that you must know the cause before you can do something about the problem – Insoo Kim Berg

Listen empathetically to people’s complaints about the problems they perceive, acknowledge them and move on.

Many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices – William James

Build on the momentum of progress the organization is already making.

The purpose of each successive session is to assess change and to help to maintain it – de Shazer

Remember that when you are implementing the plan and unexpected complications arise, you’ll have the stakeholders on your side.

Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans – Allen Saunders

More on using Solution Focus in strategic planning: 4 Strategic Planning Co-creation Steps & Benefits


The endorsement:

Hot Docs Town Hall
Hot Docs Town Hall

“So many of our most successful initiatives have come from the unlikeliest sources, but always in the context of robust planning. Alan’s process has focused on collaborative conversations, mixing together our diverse stakeholders whose different perspectives often combine to create wonderful and spontaneous new ideas. What we’ve learned is that having our partners, customers and staff directly involved in the genesis of plans only amplifies their ability (and motivation) to support the final goals.”  – Brett Hendrie, ED, Hot Docs


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4 Strategic Planning Co-creation Steps & Benefits

Strategic co-creation planning…what’s that?

Co-creation to speed up understanding, buy-in, implementation

Many organizations, particularly those in the for-profit SME and the NFP sectors have, until now, operated well on the outdated annual programme/budget basis. Now, downward pressure on income and/or funding is revealing the lack of organizational skills in both management and programme development and delivery. They are ineffective and/or inefficient for new complex market conditions. Change has come calling at the door and the need for strategic outcomes-driven planning is overdue. Some even argue that strategic planning is outdated…

Traditionally, strategic planning takes time and requires expertise, often delivered from the outside. The experts examine the problems and devise solutions, goals, strategies, etc. The plan they deliver may be somewhere between ideal and flawed, but we can’t know until it’s been implemented. The risk is in people, (staff/partners/stakeholders/funders/customers) taking their time to become engaged in the strategic plan. It’s often difficult to get them to stop doing what is supposed to change. It’s a slow process.

You can take the horse to water, but can’t make the horse drink it.

What’s the option? How does a Solution Focused co-created planning process speed up the process of planning change, especially in looking at long-term outcomes?

It asks three simple questions you’ve heard before on these pages: What is working that we don’t need to change? What do we do more of/ instead of the problem? What do we need to do to see immediate progress?

The approach is used to engage many stakeholder perspectives in assessing

What’s working (that we don’t want to change)? There’s always more than we realize. Benefit: Moves people from hopeless to hopeful

What needs to be different/better? We clarify the problem, but do not make it central to the solution Benefit: It’s easier to see what we will stop doing.

What will it look like when the problem is no longer present? When asked this way, people discover what they have in common. Benefit: build a plan that leverages input and insight of all parties.

What would we see ourselves doing to initiate the change? Benefit: The change can begin at the start of the planning.

Engage the horse in getting it to the water it will drink.


Yes, but what if the people engaged are wrong about what needs to be done? They may be wrong, but no more so than the planning experts. If they own it, they will make it work flaws and all. If they don’t own it, they will take more time to engage.

Yes, but what if the staff (and others) are resistant to any change? Start by asking them (and their customers) what’s working and what needs to be better. Watch the change start happening. It may have to slow down a bit if they are deeply entrenched.

Key ingredient: early cross-stakeholder alignment (everyone is a stakeholder) and the above solution focused better questions. When everyone is aligned around the new desired outcomes, the plan falls in place more naturally.

It is a co-creation planning process. 

More on the better questions that Solution Focus brings to co-creation

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Nine questions your colleagues are too embarrassed to ask

Are some of your colleagues feeling stuck about making change happen?

Here are some better questions to help your colleagues make change begin to happen.

Maybe it’s time to stop talking about the problem?

Here’s the dark secret…problem analytics are for your car mechanic and the scientists. When the issue is about people and people processes problem analytics destroy productivity. Your colleagues will be somewhat embarrassed by how much easier it is to make progress if you ask them, ‘What do you want instead of the problem?’

What if there’s no debate about who’s right/wrong?

With few exceptions in organizations (e.g., how do you fly an airplane) there are no right answers. It’s useful to disagree – that brings options to the discussion – but, debate means someone has to win. Winning debates is about being argumentative, not listening. So the debate winner is just as likely to be wrong. Instead ask your debaters, ‘What is that we want in common?’ ‘What are the outcomes that will help us make progress?’

How about we find a better way to deal with the angry voice in the room?

You don’t have to pay attention to angry voices simply because they demand the most attention. They can’t listen and they’re hard to listen to. Take them seriously, (they mean it), but not literally. Empathize with language like, ‘You sound like you are very frustrated’, and go back to your agenda.

What happens if no one is allowed to play the victim card?

In a world of people making a profession out of being a victim it’s useful to ask, ‘Despite the problem, what’s working?.’ Lives (and teams) lived defined by the damaging things that have happened before are automatically self-limiting. Fletcher Peacock says, water the flowers, not the weeds. Here’s someone who did.

Do we need to tell people what to do all the time?

Sometimes we have to ‘tell’, e.g., you are breaking the law. But most of the time if we keep telling people what to do, they will lose motivation, stop thinking, become disengaged, etc. Better to define what outcomes are desired and let them figure it out. Try. ‘Suppose we meet, maybe exceed the goals, what will we be doing more of, differently, better, etc. and, ‘How do you see yourself helping to achieve the goals?’

What if we make collaboration more than a nice-to-do option?

Collaboration is not an option; it’s a necessity. And, everyone is trying to collaborate, just not each other’s way. Don’t ask why they can’t work together. Instead, ask, ‘What have we managed to achieve (i.e., what’s worked)? What would our stakeholders (e.g., customers) want to see us doing? How would we see ourselves doing that? What first small steps might we take together?

What if we could leverage the strengths of people we think are our weak link?

Everyone has weaknesses. If we only amplify weakness chances are they will still deliver them. Get to what needs to be better by first amplifying what they do well. What they do well is the platform upon which they can move to a better place.

Could we actually coach people to find their own solutions, (not just yours)?

Peter Drucker said, ‘The leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask’. That future is today. Asking people better questions that help them to come up with solutions wins in the short and long-term. Try, ‘When you’ve faced a situation like this before, what worked?’

What if letting go made us more authoritative leaders?

The difficult part of being a leader is the need to be right all the time. Wrong! Leaders brown-out on answers as much as their support staff. Stare them in the eye and say, ‘I don’t have a clue, but I suspect we do. What would be a good outcome for us?’ Close your mouth and listen for clues to the solution.

Does this sound too simplistic to resolve situations in a complex organization? Try it and see. 


5 Ways to Better Project Results through Solution Focus

Guest post by renowned European based project management expert, John Nicol

Running projects with Solution Focus methodology shifts your team focus from “What’s wrong?” to “What’s wanted?” Any project I have ever been involved with gets stuck at some point. 

Project stuckness tends to be rooted in problems of resource allocation, poor scheduling and inaccuracies in cost or risk management. In my experience too many project managers will invest far too much time and resources to get a deep understanding of why the project is failing to move forward. Understanding what is wrong and who is to blame gives them the illusion of control. As a Project Mediator I aim to minimize root cause analysis and instead focus more on looking for clues for success. I often throw out the open question; “OK, we’re stuck, so what’s wanted here to put it right?” I am not ignoring problems, I am just not adding more fuel to the problem talk. What I do is support the project team to propose small steps to start unsticking the situation. The problems are still there but the team is committed to share successes and shift towards solutions.

1. Focusing attention on what works always maintains higher human engagement and gives proof that we have good people and systems in place. 

Many people I have worked with have written this approach off telling me; ‘Just being positive won’t help’. This approach is not ‘being positive’. It is about investing time and energy with the team looking for concrete, measurable evidence that we can fix our problems and become unstuck. It is about shining a light on the team’s creativity and thereby driving better cooperation.

2. Deep diving problems drives problem talk, talking about solutions drives sucess talk. 

All projects have strict budgets of people, time and money. In my opinion it is always a better investment of those precious project resources to steer focus away from deeply understanding problems and towards what steps we can take to define and implement solutions. In the process of designing workable solutions, the team begins to describe how much problem analysis is actually useful in this case.

3. Simple questions leverage the resources you have more effectively then small miracles happen. 

As a project mediator I often adopt what SF calls ‘the beginner mindset’ to find solutions. By assuming a position of no project management expertise I can ask simple (even naïve) questions such as “Suppose the tools were working as we need them to, what would be happening?” or “When did you successfully solve a problem like this in the past? Walk me through the steps you took”.  In most cases like this I have heard people speak up who had tended to stay quiet in the past. This is what I refer to as the small miracles.

4. Minimize Problem Analysis to radically reduce bickering in your project teams 

When projects become stuck, what normally happens in the very worst projects? The manager will kick off a Blame Game. He will insist that we need to get control of the situation by writing down everything that went wrong and identifying the guys responsible.  Apart from being an unpleasant experience for everyone in the project, the process of investigating wrongness is very expensive and almost useless in terms of delivering better business results. Using Solution Focus methodology, I absolutely minimize – ideally avoid – investigating why things have gone wrong. Instead I acknowledge that ‘things go wrong’ and encourage those involved to step up and talk about what we can do to get back on track.

5. Solution Focus Project Mediation methods require hours rather than weeks to learn 

Above all the solutions focus tools are simple and require very little training time to apply. Solution focus methodology taught me a couple of powerful principles for managing complex organizational projects

Every project is different

We do not need to deeply understand our problems to find solutions

The first point reminds me to respect the uniqueness of the situations and problems and avoid ill-fitting theory. Experts are only useful in as much as it helps to define and implement the solutions as close as possible to the given project constraints. Solutions always emerge when we ask each other questions about how to best succeed.

The second point emphasizes that the over-analysis of complex problems does not move us towards solving them. Instead it is more efficient and ultimately profitable to spend my team’s time building confidence about how we can design and implement solutions as quickly as possible. I ask very simple questions such as What else? and who else? to start writing impactful project plans.

John Leslie Nicol is a co-owner and partner of He is a Solution Focus Project Mediator who specializes in getting stuck projects moving again towards better results.