Assembling the building blocks of a fast-growing organisation
“What I really liked about David was that he made the strategic process very clear and simple. Once I’d outlined our situation he cut to it very quickly, which assured me that he knew what he was talking about. He was a steady hand. A very professional, capable presence: cool, calm and competent, but he’s got a warmth about him. He challenged us in a way that was very acceptable – which is a useful skill to have – and used the right kind of language: no management mumbo jumbo.”
Liz Partington, Deputy CEO, Changeworks
Changeworks, based in Edinburgh, develops and delivers solutions around energy, waste and carbon reduction, with a strong focus on decarbonising homes and tackling fuel poverty. The organisation had grown and its work had gained a high profile in Scotland but, in their own words, had “an uneasy relationship with strategy”.
The Board and senior staff felt the organisation needed a new, more focused strategic plan, but efforts to address the challenge had met with difficulties. Deputy CEO Liz Partington, who had been charged with the responsibility of putting the strategic plan together, felt that a third party could help to overcome any internal obstacles, and contacted Action Planning for help.
David Saint was asked to go to Edinburgh to run a strategy day for the senior team, with the Chair also in attendance, and subsequently to provide support to Liz as she continued the process of writing the strategic plan.
“I was looking for somebody to help us in the initial phase to get everybody’s thoughts and input and get us to focus on getting something that was much more distilled and that we would all be able to get behind,” says Liz. “I needed a fresh pair of eyes and Action Planning was recommended by a colleague who’s recently joined my team.”
Our usual practice in cases such as this is to interview the participants ahead of the event. This enables us to gain a clear understanding of the organisation from multiple angles and to hear everybody’s opinion on the matter in hand, so that these can be taken into account during discussions and everybody feels they have been “heard”.
It also enables our facilitator to get to know all the participants in advance, thus saving time building a rapport on the day. So David arranged Zoom calls with all the participants, starting with the CEO, plus some of the other Board members who were not due to attend, so he could run the day from a fully informed position.
On the strategy day itself he was then able to delve deeply into the identity and purpose of the organisation and encourage the participants to think big: “Who are we?” “What do we want to be famous for?” “Where would we be best focusing our strengths and resources?”
As the ideas began to distil into a cohesive plan, David was able to get them thinking in more detail about numbers and other indicators of success, as well as making decisions as to who would take ownership for individual components of the plan, and a schedule for actions.
David wrote up his notes from the strategy day to provide Liz and her colleagues with a record of actions agreed. He then provided remote support to Liz as she continued with the process, sometimes reviewing documents and guiding and advising, sometimes simply being a listening ear.
Changeworks had a lot of building blocks in the form of papers on a range of topics but they needed a structure and clear ownership. David was able to provide a structure to the strategic planning process, as well as the final document. He enabled the team to establish clarity over terminology and drove them to think about concrete targets rather than generalities.
By engaging all parties in the process, he was able to steer the team towards defining the “one big thing” that Changeworks stands for and to stretch their ambition to be proportionate with the climate crisis and its looming deadline.
Changeworks now has a new strategy, with a simplified set of goals, which has been published externally and has also galvanised the team internally. “It’s simple, it’s clear, it’s got flexibility built in. It’s actually strategy, not just a great big operational plan,” says Liz.
Quite a mystique has grown up around strategic planning and many organisations agonise over the process. Lengthy papers are written, SWOT analyses are strained over and sentences are dissected and reassembled to try to come up with the “perfect” description of what the organisation is about.
Actually it’s really simple, but sometimes it takes somebody from outside the organisation to see the wood for the trees, to provide a structure, process and (crucially) a timetable, and to help keep conversations to the point.
Changeworks was a lovely client to work with – they have a clear goal with a timeline (set by the Scottish Parliament, no less!). They have a successful business model and a highly able and committed senior team. One of their downsides was that, if anything, they had too much knowledge, information and data. Coming in from the outside, we were able to help them strip this back to the strategic essentials and formulate a step-change way forward for the future.