By David Unmacht
The first few months of each new year are turning points for our cities. Newly elected officials are entering office, a new budget is in effect, new goals are being pursued, and—despite the depths of winter settling in—there is often a fresh, exciting energy about the year ahead. The new year is also a time to reflect on the recent past and think about what is planned or expected in the next 12 months.
This is often the time cities do their collective thinking in traditional goal-setting or strategic-planning sessions. I have directly participated in or facilitated dozens upon dozens of these sessions in my career. The sessions are a healthy and productive way to, simply put, get the elected officials and staff on the same page. But there is an art to conducting these sessions, and that is the essence of the inherent challenges and the reason some people question their effectiveness.
A couple of years ago, at a League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) Annual Conference, Mark Casey, city manager of St. Anthony Village (and current LMC Board member) and I presented a session entitled “Strategic Planning: Simplified for Practical Use in Your City.” The City of St. Anthony Village is but one of many great examples of a city with a history of excellence in strategic planning.
The title of our presentation manifests my belief perfectly. When considering a session, it is advisable to keep it simple and make sure it is practical. There are countless methods and motivations for conducting goal-setting sessions. There is no one right way. However, based on my experiences, I offer a few tried and true observations to increase your odds for a successful experience.
There are typically two seasons for these sessions: mid-year in anticipation of the budget process or at the beginning of the new year, when the many planned and anticipated projects need to be prioritized. The timing of a session is a factor of each city’s culture, tradition, and needs. It is important to note that goal-setting sessions are not necessarily the same as team-building sessions. Some of the principal features may overlap, but the content and agenda are distinctively different.
It is important to have a clear and defined process with an agreed-upon agenda. It is always best—in advance of the meeting—to seek input from intended participants on their goals and expectations of the session. If participants have varying expectations, that can lead to a very bad experience. It is easy to prevent this outcome with open communication and an understanding of intentions in advance.
A clear and defined component of success is an inclusive and participatory discussion. Everyone’s voice is equal, and opinions need to be shared, expressed, and encouraged. For strategic planning, key staff need to be involved. In that regard, it is important for the mayor and council to be open to new and differing ideas. A staff member must be designated to take notes or record key points for future reference and use. Because they do not happen on a regular basis, these types of meetings should also be an enjoyable and fun experience.
Why at times do they not work well? What gives these sessions a bad rap? After 30 years of participating and watching these sessions, I believe there is one significant reason: lack of follow-through or accountability for next steps. That is when the meeting itself becomes an event as opposed to a single step in a larger process. To avoid that, the mayor, city council, and administration must designate a point person (usually the city administrator) to ensure that information generated from the work session is brought back for further consideration, discussion, and, ultimately, action. This takes time and effort, but is important.
There are many other relevant details, including whether or not to use a facilitator, the best location for your meeting, the length of the meeting, and what information is needed in advance for planning and preparation. These are all important considerations, and the answers are unique to each city.
If you have questions about how to plan a session or want to learn more about strategic planning, feel free to contact me at the email or phone number listed below. I would be happy to talk with you about it.
David Unmacht is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 281-1205.
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