Over the past year, I’ve been involved in strategic planning or project planning with six different organizations. The projects have varied in substance, scope and complexity but they have left me with one overriding thought: discovery may be the step most vital to good planning . . . and the most neglected.
Discovery is a precursor to planning – the phase where you gather information and insight that will be the basis for your plan. In the language of logic models, it is the process of cataloging the givens or precursors to your program theory: the target problem, community needs and assets, influential factors, practices that have proven successful and resources that are available to your organization. And, again, the return on your strategic planning may be heavily determined by what you invest in discovery.
In my experience, though, it is hard to invest in discovery. It asks us to focus attention on areas of our organization and mission that we believe we already understand thoroughly: participants, programs, personnel, funders, partners, competitors, trends in our field, best practices. And all of that time-consuming work – gathering, sorting and summarizing – only gets us to the starting line. We could spend months compiling data and not be anywhere close to defining outcomes, quantifying results or outlining activities. The clock is ticking and there is a palpable itch to get to action.
In a recent strategic planning process with the Friendship Center at Holy Comforter, we decided as part of our initial environmental scan to interview three of the leading agencies devoted to advocacy and public policy for people living with mental illness. Our assumption was that this is where we would learn about the larger system that shapes and regulates community-based, residential care in the state of Georgia. While we did learn a lot from these organizations, we discovered that they actually knew very little about personal care homes for people with mental illness – the places where most of the participants at the Friendship Center live. How many personal care homes there are, how many people live them, where they are and who is regulating them – all of these were unknowns to the advocacy organizations with their fingers most closely on the pulse of mental health care in Georgia.
While it was troubling to find that our friends are so invisible, this information had significant ramifications for mission and strategy. We discovered that the Friendship Center is itself a vital source of information about people living in poverty with mental illness and that it is the largest regular gathering of this population anywhere in the state. This discovery revealed an opportunity and responsibility previously unrecognized: serving as a bridge between people who have the ear of legislators and regulators and people living unseen in a poorly funded, poorly regulated, poorly managed system of care.
Until you invest in discovery, you will not uncover new insights hiding within the work that you already know so well. So take the time and spend the money. Discovery will enhance your clarity, improve your planning and increase your impact.