In the last several years, a number of books have appeared on the subject of how to talk through difficult issues with others. The titles say it all: Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time by Susan Scott; Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss what Matters Most by Douglas Stone; and Crucial Confrontations by Kerry Patterson. The focus of these books is, for the most part, on interpersonal communication with friends, family members and co-workers. But these book titles capture an important quality of effective strategic planning practice. The planning process needs to be designed and conducted in such a way that leaders are able to articulate the most critical issues, choices and challenges facing their organizations, then engage in the “fierce conversations”, “difficult conversations” and “crucial confrontations” to thoroughly discuss these critical issues, choices and challenges and finally come to agreement on how the organization will respond to them.
In an issues based approach to strategic planning, the selection of issues is very important because it determines the range of decisions and choices the nonprofit will consider in the future. In some instances, leaders are already aware of some of the critical issues that the strategic planning process must help them address. In most situations, the planning process participants discern critical strategic issues as they examine the data gathered through external, market and internal assessment conducted earlier in the planning process. I like to challenge people to express their critical issues in the form of questions. The rest of the planning process then constitutes the work of constructing the big answers to these big questions. Identifying the critical issues and choices then becomes the watershed event in the planning process. If we have correctly identified the real issues, we know what we need to have the fierce conversations about. The resulting strategic plan will be relevant. If we fail to identify the real issues, the resulting plan will be useless – answers that may look good but answers to the wrong questions.