The power of a strategic and tactical plan to inspire professionals to volunteer
This paper provides specific guidance, templates and examples to produce a strategic and tactical plan for a virtual organization. It opens with the approach used recently by the International Development Specific Interest Group of the Project Management Institute, and provides lessons learned from this successful activity. The SIG used the strategic planning effort to define what the membership wanted from the SIG and to plan how these desires could be met over a five-year period. The Board found that the development and use of a strategic plan was an effective way to inspire volunteers among the component members. The members are professional project managers with very full plates yet tremendous expertise to offer. The approach is applicable to any professional organization that relies on volunteer expertise to achieve its mission.
Of the thirty-plus Specific Interest Groups (SIG) in Project Management Institute (PMI®), this SIG is unique in that the mission is altruistic. Most work undertaken, even in business, is to do good. The International Development Specific Interest Group (IDSIG) was founded in 2001 to “reduce poverty in developing countries by increasing the impact of international development projects and programs (ID SIG, 2005).” The founders and early members created the organization to address the common challenges of international development that they had observed during many years of involvement in the field. Membership grew steadily, from 350 in Dec 2002, to 382 in Dec 2003, to 478 in Dec 2004. In March 2005, the IDSIG web site was launched to enable information dissemination.
Also in 2005, PMI initiated the Post-Disaster Rebuild Methodology and Training project to respond to the terrible devastation of the tsunami in Asia in December 2004. Several IDSIG members were drawn to contribute to this effort, and the IDSIG News Brief was initiated in July 2005 to keep IDSIG members informed of progress. The News Brief provided the platform for an IDSIG member survey conducted in August - September 2005. (ID SIG, 2005a)
Several themes emerged from an analysis of the member survey responses. The question on specific offerings that would stimulate membership involvement was particularly revealing. Members would like to see increased member interaction. They would like access to job and/or grant opportunities in the international development field. They would like to see actual use of PM Standards and Best Practices in International Development Projects. They would also appreciate closer relationships with related groups both within PMI (e.g. local PMI chapters and related SIGs) and to Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and governmental bodies.
The draft findings were shared with the members at the September 2005 IDSIG Annual Membership Meeting in Toronto, Canada. Attendees brainstormed additional ideas to further define and clarify the survey comments. The draft and final survey results and the annual meeting minutes are available on the IDSIG web site at http://www.pmi-idsig.org/. (ID SIG, 2005b)
The Strategic Planning Effort
Rather than addressing the suggestions from members in a piecemeal fashion, the IDSIG board decided to conduct a strategic planning exercise. The board considered a strategic plan to be a key communication product that would summarize the intent and purpose of the organization in a way that members, potential members and beneficiaries could easily understand. The plan was in keeping with a five-year strategy that was a part of the founders’ original description. The products and services that the IDSIG members identified in mid-2005 were a primary input to the strategic plan. However, it is important to note that the purpose, the vision, the mission, and the principal objectives defined by the founders in 2001 were used as the starting point for the strategic plan: detailed suggestions from the members served to update and elaborate on these fundamentals.
A call went out via the monthly IDSIG NewsBriefs to invite members to participate. In all, twenty-two members expressed interest in contributing to the strategic plan development. The team, co-led by the Chair and the Marketing Vice Chair, developed the plan over a three-month period: Nov 2005 through Jan 2006.
Each PMI Specific Interest Group has a unique graphic: the IDSIG logo shows a world globe surrounded by bright satellites. This logo served as appropriate branding for the document, and the page number and date last updated served as useful footer information.
The members used a standard office product for all parts of the strategic plan including appendices: Microsoft Word® with standard fonts. In this way, the document would be readable worldwide by members using a wide range of Internet access devices.
All work was done virtually via numerous e-mails and five teleconferences. Teleconference times were varied to support the different time zones in which team members lived. It was important to make the a.m. versus p.m. timing very visible and send out reminders before each meeting: it was very easy for busy team members to mis-read and be disappointed at 6:00 p.m. that the meeting had already taken place at 6:00 a.m. In future, it would be wise to use ‘military time’ and refer to 0600 or 1800, always with the time zone attached. We used ‘Pacific’ for ‘Pacific Coast Time Zone’ to further avoid the confusion of Pacific Standard or Pacific Daylight Savings time. It was remarkable how much there is to making a simple meeting arrangements!
After each teleconference, an e-mail was sent out to the full team with a running list of action items and their status. Team members who missed the teleconference could then keep up to date and contribute their suggestions after the meeting. We found that following up with individual e-mails to specific members on their actions was necessary. Every member did stellar work with their assignments even with families, jobs, travel and work on advanced degrees that competed for their volunteer time. The calibre of the strategic planning members was very high and this quality continues with the volunteers who are carrying the tactical work forward in 2006.
The team members saw no point in a strategic plan that was lengthy and verbose, and they all recognized this work as a means to an end, rather than an end unto itself. Professional volunteers have high standards and wanted the document to be clear, concise, and a natural lead-in to real projects to be undertaken to implement the products and services that members had requested that meet the overall purpose of the organization.
Structure of the Strategic Plan
The body of the strategic plan incorporated the elements of the existing SIG description on the web site. Use of this material ensured that we started with the original purpose and could quickly produce a draft to enhance with member input. The term ‘Our’ was inserted before key section titles to enhance the feeling of personal ownership for the members. In addition to the body, the strategic planning team members created four appendices. All elements are discussed below.
The body of the strategic plan opened with an Executive Summary followed by these specific sections:
- Our Purpose
- Our Vision
- Our Mission
- Situation Analysis – an added section summarizing recent events impacting the group
- Principal Objectives
- Common Challenges of International Development
- Vision and Five Year Strategy
- IDPM Expertise Roster – an added section describing member skills and experience
- Financial Plan
- Success Indicators – an added section with tangible measures of progress
- Glossary – an added section that described the Millennium Development Goals and a very influential recent book by De Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time (Sachs, 2005)
Appendix A consists of a single page ‘Five year strategy’. This product proved to be useful as a summary of our intent in the strategic plan and as a stand-alone product to share with other organizations. It is a simple two-column table listing, by year, the key services and their specific deliverables anticipated over the five-year period 2006-2010. It was important to make the products as concrete as possible to enable team members to begin to flesh out the first year products and to commit to projects that could be completed in a reasonable timeframe.
Appendix B expanded the products and services in Year 1: 2006 to greater detail. Some of the ideas were stretch goals, such as the development of webinars that was inspired by positive experiences within other PMI SIGs: Risk and Government, to name two SIGs using webinars successfully. Others were basic infrastructure, such as the web site and the monthly News Briefs, which must be solid before the more ambitious projects could succeed. These are basics, but basics are not always easy with a group of professionals fitting this volunteer work into their busy lives. The only paid work on the IDSIG was for web services to maintain the physical web pages and board member email accounts and to develop the expertise roster application. All other work, from content of the web pages and NewsBriefs to member e-mail communications to planning and implementation of any of the tactical projects for 2006, was done completely by volunteers. In fact, one volunteer donated teleconference time to enable one tactical team to meet, and volunteers purchased books and other materials to support their research efforts.
Appendix C outlined a path to a certification program, to meet the founders’ vision of project management professionals specifically trained in the area of international development. Since the strategic plan was finalized, we have learned that PMI offers several options to address this intent: a PMI General Standard, a Practice Standard or an extension to A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) Third Edition (PMI, 2004) to support international development. These options will need to be explored and Appendix C revised accordingly when we update the Strategic Plan in late 2006. The work being done this year to identify and organize existing materials is foundational to any future certification activity.
Appendix D suggested the topics around which to organize existing international development project management materials. It was merely a straw horse to help the team that will redesign the web site and seek out additional materials available on the Internet or via other public sources of information. This research and collation is still in its infancy but will be an important resource for our members and partners.
The presence of leaders for the strategic plan and the tactical projects was absolutely key to their success. The leaders needed to care passionately about getting the work done well and in a timely manner. With volunteers, it is best to enable activities to provide immediate satisfaction. It is our observation that professionals who volunteer want to use their unique skills to do good work, and they want to have this work both recognized and used. Leaders see this need and enable the work to proceed in a timely manner for everyone’s success.
The board positions in particular have to be a good fit for each incumbent. This has to do with each individual’s talents and interests more than their previous experience in that particular role. Often professionals would express hesitation about taking on a board position, especially if they are new to the organization. This is not the case in an all-volunteer group: in fact, SIG board positions are the perfect opportunity for professionals to gain valuable experience on a board.
It is very appropriate to post a general invitation to all members for open positions to see if members want to step forward for the first time. We have learned that it is even more effective to follow up with individuals who may not think of being a board member or team lead. It is good to look deeply into the questions that individuals ask or the concerns they express to see where they might have a passion to put in place a solution. As noted in ‘Now, Discover your Strengths,’ “the two key assumptions on which great organizations must be built… are
- Each person’s talents are enduring and unique.
- Each person’s greatest room for growth is in the areas of his or her greatest strength.” (Buckingham & Clifton, 2001)
This is even more critical for a volunteer organization than a workplace, since professionals will only find satisfaction in volunteering and want to continue if they are successful contributors from the start. Identifying a good match to their talents, skills and interest is essential.
PMI is appropriately concerned about sharing member e-mail addresses or phone numbers. Our SIG uses the ‘Blind-CC’ option every time we send an e-mail to more than one other person, unless all individuals have agreed to participate on a team. It is not enough to express interest in learning more about the team. In order to protect contact information and ensure that it is not misused, it is important to receive e-mail confirmation before sharing information on a team roster.
The strategic planning team identified a set of near-term tactical areas of focus for 2006 as the final piece of the planning. Interested individuals from the strategic planning team then moved into leadership positions in the tactical areas of focus and began to define these as projects. As the scope and deliverables of the projects became more specific, there was a tendency for the project name to evolve to match the evolving scope. It is important to name projects recognizably based on the strategic plan naming and then to use the project names consistently in all communication thereafter, particularly for members who may not have been involved in the strategic planning effort.
At the same time, it is important to check back to the intent in the strategic plan as each tactical project evolves to be sure that the scope continues to match the intent of that focus area as described in the strategic plan. The purpose of this planning and implementation is, of course, to meet the overall intent of the organization and the individual suggestions for products and services identified by members. We cannot lose sight of the overall purpose as we get into the details of definition and implementation.
We will need to update the strategic plan annually based on the reality of what was accomplished with the tactical plans that year and any new opportunities that have emerged that were not foreseen in the previous year’s planning effort. As noted by a senior executive of a non-profit (Light, 2004, p. 157), a strategic plan “is not just something that you put in a drawer. You have to deliver on it, evaluate it, and take the time to assess whether it’s still relevant.” The IDSIG plans to live by the strategic plan and update it annually.
Successes of the Strategic Planning effort
The overall membership of the IDSIG increased significantly in the twelve months from July1, 2005 when the initial member survey was sent out (561 members) through June 30, 2006 (733 members).
The IDSIG board approved the strategic plan in January 2006. Two projects were launched immediately: the IDSIG Expertise Roster and the NGO Alliances project. Both are being pursued aggressively.
The IDSIG Expertise Roster will implement a roster summarizing IDSIG member expertise in specific international development areas. The roster will be password protected and will be accessed from the Members page of our IDSIG web site. The purpose of the roster is to enable sharing between members and to support countries or NGOs who seek consulting or training expertise from our membership. The web-based application has been planned, requirements developed and the web services vendor assigned the application development work.
The tactical project to develop NGO and other organization alliances is moving forward. The team has piloted and improved a presentation on the IDSIG to make available on the IDSIG web site for IDSIG members to share at their local PMI Chapter meetings or other project management forums. They have also started planning the IDSIG regional meetings for 2006. These events are envisioned as one to two day conferences, each coordinated by a local resident member of the IDSIG. Our regional meeting experiences and partnership development in 2006 is anticipated to help us plan an IDSIG/NGO conference in 2007.
An interest in humanitarian projects emerged at the PMI EMEA Global Congress in March 2006 that may be a good fit within the NGO Alliances project. The NGO Alliances project also serves as a focal point to plan the IDSIG regional conferences, since our members and our partners would be the regional meeting attendees.
The Post Disaster Rebuild Methodology and Training (PDRMT) project completed in December, 2005 with a pilot training session attended by eight NGOs. However, the process to release the materials is still in progress, so the IDSIG members interested in deploying the materials are not able to proceed at this time. All IDSIG members who volunteered to work on the PDRMT have been asked to work on other tactical projects to maintain their interest and enthusiasm.
We must fill board positions in a timely manner with people who are able to follow through on the position requirements. Board members apply and are accepted based on excellent resumes and references: they are well qualified. As soon as the life situation of a board member changes, it is important to address it rather than let the board member try to fit new jobs, new master’s programs, or other big time drains into their existing set of commitments. It is better to acknowledge and address the impact immediately. This might include juggling the board assignments based on individual time availability rather than rigid responsibility matrices. It is also extremely helpful to have a few willing and experienced former board members or project leads at the ready to step in as needed. We also encouraged our tactical project leads to consider board positions that supported their projects, so that they could report status, raise issues, and request decisions directly at the board meetings.
It is absolutely critical to ensure that member communications, especially responses to questions and welcomes to new members, is timely. This responsibility, too, must move around board members as needed to be sure the communications continue.
Finally, the need for a greater income stream to support the tactical projects was recognized. This will be discussed in the next section.
Our Next Strategic Planning Cycle
We will conduct our annual member survey in September and October 2006, and hold our annual IDSIG member meeting during the PMI North American Global Congress in Seattle in October 2006. We will then conduct an update to the strategic plan based on our lessons learned in 2006 and opportunity improvements from the literature and from our members. Among key early findings are the need for additional sources of funding and the need to focus on our IDSIG member strengths in training and consulting on international development projects.
Our annual fee is the smallest of any SIG: $10 US per year. Yet any organization needs infrastructure in place to succeed. The IDSIG went into production with a web site in March 2005, and is expanding the web site in 2006 with the IDSIG Expertise Roster application. We need monthly newsletters collated and sent reliably each month. We need teleconferencing to keep the tactical team members engaged and moving forward. And we need to be able to fund presenter travel costs and venue costs for regional conferences or training sessions. If we decide to develop webinars or other training materials, this too will come with a cost. We will need access to some additional funding sources.
It may be advantageous to pursue corporate sponsorship for specific events to share project management practices and support our worldwide membership. Another senior executive for a non-profit (Light, 2004, p. 157) noted that strategic planning was an early critical area, but “the first thing I’d do is raise money… to build an infrastructure for the organization.” We need to ensure that basic member services, such as communication to new members, monthly newsletters, and up-to-date web content, are rock-solid in order to successfully expand to address the broader member requests. With an organization of volunteers with many competing demands on their time, this can be a real challenge. Offloading the mechanics, whether it is web site maintenance, standard communications or bookkeeping, is one way to use our member’s precious time to best effect.
We must take advantage of any existing materials. If materials exist and are publicly available, we should consider them seriously before creating anything new. The IDSIG is best equipped to communicate, to train and to support international development projects. Given the need and the short timeframe, we cannot develop unique materials from scratch: rather, we need to build on standards efforts already underway in this field. For example, the World Bank Institute recently released a resource kit, Managing the Implementation of Development Project (World Bank Institute, 2006) that has very good coverage of the aspects of international development in one of the most important areas: putting the identified solution in place in the developing country.
Making Strategic Planning More Impactful
This paper closes with a look at our IDSIG experience and to note how we propose to improve our Strategic Plan in the next update.
In ‘The Tipping Point,’ author Malcolm Gladwell identifies the three rules of social epidemics: 1) a handful of the right people can move an idea forward, 2) coming up with a ’sticky’, memorable message is of key importance, and 3) the context in which a message is heard influences people to take action (Gladwell, 2000). We can attest to the importance of context. We found in our IDSIG communications, for example, that the fewer people asked, the more positive the response we received. A request for help was diluted when sent to 700 members, or even a dozen individuals on a team. Yet the same request sent to one individual was very effective. We can draw a very positive conclusion from Gladwell’s remarkable book: we all have much more opportunity to influence the larger world than we realize, and application of simple principles summarized in the text could make our communications far more effective. The identification of compelling messages may be a focus for our team in the 2006 update.
Strategic planning team members were inspired by Jeffrey Sachs recent work, ‘The End of Poverty’ (Sachs, 2005). We were encouraged by Sachs’ vision for meeting the Millennium Development Goals (United Nations, 2002) in the United Nations’ desired timeframe of 2015 and going beyond these goals to achieve the end of extreme poverty by 2025. Over one billion people are estimated to live in households that “cannot meet basic needs for survival. They are chronically hungry, unable to access health care, lack the amenities of safe drinking water and sanitation, cannot afford education for some or all of the children, and perhaps lack rudimentary shelter … and clothing… (Sachs, 2005, p.20).” We feel that there are opportunities for the IDSIG to partner with other organizations to contribute our specific skills towards the end of extreme poverty. This is another area that we can pursue as we plan our next update.
In summary, there is a real excitement in working with bright professionals to make positive change in the world. It is so worthwhile to organize the group’s intent in the form of a strategic plan and to lay out practical ways to reach this intent over a period of five years. Seeing the tactical plans progress and more people join in has been a very rewarding experience for those of us on the IDSIG board. PMI Specific Interests Groups and other professional organizations can benefit from this approach as well.
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© 2006, Lise Yale
Originally published as a part of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Seattle Washington