How do you get 30 very different people to agree on something? How do you engage all those minds to come up with an annual plan? It doesn’t need to be as challenging as interpreting the Mayan calendar.
Every year our Scout troop meets in August with one objective: come up with a plan for next year. Below, I’ll show you how we do it in six short steps, and introduce several techniques that you can use as you try to put together your own long term plans.
Planning the Annual Plan
Getting a large group to agree on anything can be a challenge. Yet for us, it is critical that every member feel that he has genuine input to what we do in the coming year. The key to resolving this challenge is to be organized, and to work in small groups whenever possible. We make this a dedicated event every year, retreat to a cabin in the woods, and give it the focused attention it deserves. Here is the six-step approach we use.
1. Review/Confirm Annual Goals
It all has to start with knowing where you want to go and what you want to achieve by the time the year is over. So before launching right into idea generation, we always start with a look at last year’s goals and objectives to see how we did, and then decide what should change for the next year.
So everyone can see, we project the goals up on a screen, then discuss how well we did or did not meet each of the goals we had set for ourselves. Then we decide if we want to keep or change that goal in the coming year.
Last time we did this, we found that we met our camping and service project goals, but wanted to do better with our recruiting efforts and opportunities for advancement. After some discussion, we worked to come up with SMART goals so that we would have clear targets to shoot for. At the end, we take a voice vote for final approval.
Having everyone involved in this part helps ensure we all know what we are trying to achieve in the coming year; we start out on the same page.
2. Brainstorm Ideas (group of groups)
With that key bit of homework done, it’s time to start generating ideas. We’ve tried doing this as one large group, but as our membership grew it became too unwieldy – people with good ideas weren’t getting heard, fewer people were able to participate meaningfully, and it became an exercise in crowd control instead of planning. I’ve written about how to do a good brainstorming session, but here’s the short version:
Brainstorming is more effective in smaller groups where there can be a fast paced interchange of ideas, everyone has a chance to participate, more voices are heard, and people have a greater sense of having a meaningful impact on the process. So we break off into our three patrols of 8-10 people each and let the idea generation happen there. Check out this video for more thoughts about the brainstorming process.
Before we release the groups to start the process, we give them a little guidance.
First, we give them categories of ideas to develop. For example, we need each group to come up with three service project ideas, three ideas for fun outings to go on, and three places you think we should go for summer camp next year.
Second, we give them a standardized format to use in expressing their ideas. For us, using 5×8 index cards has worked well. As a group comes up with an idea it wants to propose, they note the category, give it a short title, a brief description, and a time frame (e.g. winter camping in this hemisphere should probably be done December – February). We project examples up on the wall so they can see what a good idea card looks like.
Third, we give them a time limit – maybe one hour.
Fourth, we give them some space to work in. If each group has its own table or corner of a room to work in, they can proceed without distraction and focus on coming up with their ideas.
When each group is done, they have a stack of 5×8 cards, one for each idea, and we’re ready to move on.
3. Present the Ideas
Sharing all these great ideas is important, so when time is up, we bring everyone back together. Each group then presents its best ideas in each category. This part can bog down if you are not careful, so it helps to set a time limit for each – maybe one minute to present each idea.
Some groups appoint a spokesperson to present all their ideas, other groups will have the person who first proposed it present the idea to the group. Either method is fine. A little bit of salesmanship can go a long way here; it’s fun when groups try to top each other’s ideas.
Once an idea is presented, one of our leaders takes the 5×8 card and displays it for all to see. Last year we hung a large tarp on the wall and used double stick tape to hold the cards in place. Spray adhesive and a large sheet can also work, but is less effective if it’s humid.
Each idea goes up under the appropriate category. When all groups have presented, the result is a wall covered with lots of great ideas, divided into the various categories that are important to us.
At this point, we will typically take a break, roast some marshmallows or hang out around the fire. During that time and overnight, since the creative juices are still flowing, more ideas will often percolate to the top, so it is not unusual to be asked to add more cards to the wall. We let this happen – more quality ideas are better!
This is my favorite step. The goal now is to figure out what everyone wants to do the most. And maybe also determine what they would prefer not to do. We do this by voting with colored stickers – it’s simple and effective.
Right after breakfast, we gather everyone in front of the idea display, give them each 12 green dot stickers and six red dot stickers. By the end of lunch, their task is to put those stickers onto the cards. A green dot indicates someone wants to do that event; a red one means they would prefer not to. They can spend those stickers any way they want to – put all five on one card they really want to do, spread them out; whatever. They can also act individually, or they can try to convince others to follow their lead and vote up or down a particular idea.
We leave some free time for this process, and enjoy watching the discussions and voting. Some vote right away, others are more cagey and wait – if an event they don’t like is already getting voted down, they might choose to spend that red sticker in a different place.
Nobody gets extra stickers, but I do give the adults a chance to vote too – we’re all in this adventure together. But they get fewer, and this year I’m thinking of putting the letter A on them so we can see the difference between an adult vote and one from the boys.
By the end of this step, we have a pretty clear picture of what the favorite activities are, and also the ones most people would prefer to avoid, and that makes the next step a whole lot easier.
5. Select and Schedule (leader group)
This is where the rubber meets the road, and where all those good ideas meet the hard cold reality of a calendar that has a limited number of days on it.
Use a Small Planning Group. For this step it is best to have a small group of leaders who will represent the best interests of everyone, but can also find ways to compromise. Our group has eight to ten people that includes each of the group leaders.
We start by prioritizing all the events by category. Every green sticker is a +1 vote; every red one is -1; each card ends up with a final number score. We write that on the card and circle it, then stack the cards in order, with the highest scores on top.
Use a Master Calendar. We know what the group wants to do now, so the next step is to figure out what times are available to do them. Before the event, we assemble a master calendar that has every key date we can think of. We gather holiday calendars, church calendars, school calendars from two high schools and several middle schools plus any other calendars that we can think of. Any key dates we enter onto our own master calendar – you don’t want to schedule anything on top of Mother’s Day – I made that mistake once, but I’ll never do it again!
Now it’s time to get down to business – putting events on the calendar. We lay all the top scoring cards on the table in front of us, and project the master calendar against the wall. On another wall is the tarp, but now it has months showing across the top and categories down the side. Everyone can see everything.
Schedule High-Priority Events First. We always do summer camp a certain week in July, so we put the top choice in there. We have one person man the laptop, so as decisions are made, we can see them projected in real time. We use a different color (dark green) for our events to distinguish them from others on the calendar. Another person puts the idea cards up on the tarp as they are used.
Schedule Time-Specific Events Next. Ski trips and winter camping get plugged into January through March. If we are whitewater rafting, late spring is the best time for that, while the rivers are still running high. Our Christmas Tree fund-raiser is always in December, which basically takes out that entire month (by the way, anyone interested in a locally grown Douglas Fir or Frasier Fir for the holidays? Let me know!)
Schedule Supporting Events. A week or two before any outing, it’s good to have a meeting where we focus on preparing the plans and learning the skills we’ll need for that trip.
At some point, we will always run out of calendar space before we run out of ideas we want to do, but you have to stop somewhere. Just a few more steps to go and we’ll be done.
Check Against Goals. Now is a good time to go back to the goals and objectives for the coming year, and see if the events you have scheduled support achieving those goals. If not, you can make some adjustments to bring things into alignment.
Do a “Sanity Check.” We generally shoot for one outing, a service project, and a couple meetings each month. If the draft schedule has us taking three long distance trips on back to back to back weekends, that might be too much. It’s better to do fewer events well, than a bunch of events that are haphazardly planned and not well attended.
The final step usually doesn’t take too long, but it is important to do. We gather the entire organization together, usually after dinner but before dessert. The leadership explains what the next year’s program looks like, how fun it will be, and how it will meet the organizational goals. After taking any questions, there will be a voice vote to approve, and we can get on with the business of toasting marshmallows and baking apple cobbler; mission complete!
I didn’t personally come up with this approach; I inherited it from my predecessor who was a master at doing this sort of thing. It works great for us, and I love it. Not all of you are trying to lead a Scout troop, but the ideas behind this process can be used in all kinds of settings.
Setting goals first, brainstorming in small groups, making ideas visible to all, using a voting method to prioritize what you do, developing a master calendar with a small group of leaders…these are all great techniques you can use to come up with your own long term plans. And the result is a program that everyone understands, feels they were a part of, and supports.
Question: What other techniques for group planning have you seen? How would you improve the process above?
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Photo Credit: no changes made – https://www.flickr.com/photos/kimberlyeternal/6377784239