Strategic Planning for Wildlife Conservation

“Without a strategy, an organization is like a ship without a rudder,

going around in circles… it has no place to go.”

Authors Joel Ross and Michael Kami

Photo by CPW

OWP has long advocated for a systems approach to planning. A system is a dynamic process that tends to self-correct and improve throughout subsequent iterations. This system thinking is circular, and not all information comes directly from a previous step. Thus, strategic planning is one part of the system; successful implementation depends on the other three parts as well!

As Peter Senge writes in The Fifth Discipline, “The practice of systems thinking starts with understanding a simple concept called feedback that shows how actions can reinforce or counteract (balance) each other.”

When OWP decided to focus this issue on strategic planning, we did what we always do. We asked our members to share their feedback; in this case, on why some strategic plans tended to work successfully at their agencies, while others worked less effectively.

OWP members shared their lessons learned and how they achieved buy-in with their communities and staff. Perhaps not surprisingly we found quite a bit of consistency and overlap on the process and planning of these successful programs, regardless of where they were conducted.

Here’s what we learned:

Emphasis on Process

First off, process matters a great deal to wildlife planners in successful strategic planning, even if it means getting extra support.

For instance, when the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Fisheries Management Program developed their 10 year strategic plan (2015-2025), Grants Manager Heidi Nelson recalls, “The emphasis was on the process and it began largely from the bottom up using a facilitated program-wide process like SWOC analysis.”

Along with the SWOC process – which identifies Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Challenges for strategic planning – the agency participated in several role-playing exercises pertaining to work prioritization in different scenarios.

“The Fisheries Management Board followed a parallel process, but also included visioning sessions and clarification of program direction via facilitated processes,” says Nelson. “The staff and leadership results were then compiled and compared; some trends began to emerge on how the program could better align itself to statewide goals.”

Process also ruled the development and implementation of strategic plans at Michigan Department of Natural Resources, according to Amy Derosier, Wildlife Action Plan Coordinator.

“We had a planning team that developed the process, and then facilitated the staff and stakeholders through it,” she explains. “We also hired two people from Michigan State University to help us work through the process. They helped us think through the planning and learn new tools to support the engagement process.”

Keep in mind that sometimes the strategic planning process can be a bit challenging for participants. That was the findings of a facilitator roundtable hosted by Facilitate Idaho for local businesses, agencies and boards of directors. When Facilitate Idaho asked participants how they felt about strategic planning, the organization received comments such as:

  • Exciting, painful, exhausting
  • Overcoming visioning struggles is challenging
  • Frustration hits when the plan doesn’t go anywhere

However, when participants were asked why the strategic planning process mattered, they heard comments including:

  • The plan can become a living part of their lives and organizations
  • The plan allows greater understanding of core values, and generates an understood purpose
  • The plan builds consistency and clear expectations of accountability

Stakeholder Involvement

Achieving active and diverse stakeholder involvement also mattered to different wildlife planners around the nation, as they started developing their strategic plans. Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), for instance, considered public and staff feedback very important during the process, according  to Katie Kalinowski, CPW’s Policy and Planning Supervisor.

In addition to in-depth workshops for the public and staff across Colorado, the agency used digital polling to better understand the priorities of participants.

“Polling ensured that we understood the full range of perspectives that Colorado residents had about wildlife and what percentage of them held those perspectives.” says Kalinowski. “Our workshops were in conjunction with comment forms for the staff and for the public (also in Spanish). More than 50 percent of agency staff submitted comments, along with approximately 5 thousand citizens.”

In Michigan, stakeholder engagement “was huge,” admits Derosier.  “I think it was the most extensive engagement  effort we had done in years (maybe ever) for a strategic plan. But based on this engagement, we had very high buy-in for our plan that has provided a lot of political capital for the division. Stakeholders felt engaged, and the staff also felt like the plan was theirs.”

Staff Involvement

Getting excellent feedback from stakeholders is always valuable, but having the staff feel responsible for the plan was also important in Wisconsin on the Fisheries Management Plan. “Even in draft form, nearly every member of the program had read and had some experience applying the plan,” says Nelson. “Everyone in the program also had the opportunity to provide feedback and comments. This helped make sure that individuals knew how their work contributed to achieving the overall goals for fisheries.”

This wasn’t the way plans were always written. “In the past, plans were typically drafted by an individual or small group and were largely operational in nature,” she admits. “This had the benefit of very tangible outcomes, but it didn’t provide an overall vision or direction. The staff was largely unaware of the plan and how they fit into it.”

The new approach has helped. “We have better buy-in from the staff, as well as an improved understanding of why we do the work that we do,” adds Nelson. “The plan also provides a consistent reminder to leadership to help frame their decisions.”

In Colorado, commissioners were “very engaged” on the agency-wide strategic plan recently adopted.

“Commissioners participated in four strategic planning workshops” says Kalinowski . “The planning process launched with a visioning exercise asking Commissioners to identify high level agency successes looking 10 years in to the future. Later in the process, Commissioners discussed opportunities and challenges, and then helped draft agency goals and objectives.”

Make Plans Tangible

When the strategic plan was approved in Michigan, the staff did several things to solidify the plan’s place in the workings of the division. “First, we tied our coding to the plan,” Derosier recalls. “This let us track our time and expenses by our strategic plan objectives. This forced people to know what plan objectives they worked on, and it made the strategic plan tangible and relevant.”

In Michigan, “we also develop our annual report based on our strategic plan goals,” continues Derosier. “This helps communicate our work to stakeholders and keeps the plan relevant to them.”

Division leadership does a great job of linking the work back to the strategic plan as well. “The Strategic Plan actually gave the division a common language,” she says. “We hadn’t had that common language before. So, the plan became a rallying point for staff. It helped the division feel like we were moving in the same direction, more so than in the past.”

“With a clever strategy, each action is self-reinforcing.
Each action creates more options that are mutually beneficial.
Each victory is not just for today but for tomorrow.”
Max McKeown, The Strategy Book


OWP’s Ten Steps of Strategic Planning

Step 1. Planning to Plan

Step 2. Mandates

Step 3. Values, Mission, and Vision

Step 4. Internal and External Assessment

Step 5. Strategic Issues

Step 6. Goals

Step 7. Outcomes and Outcome Measures

Step 8. Objectives

Step 9. Strategies

Step 10. Monitoring, Evaluation and Continuous Improvement

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