Strategic Planning With The Fellows

by Susan Hopkins

​Last week I had the opportunity to spend a day doing the kind of work that speaks to my heart and gets me out of bed in the morning: facilitating a fast-paced day of learning, sharing, and lively discussion. This opportunity was especially fun for me because it was with the fourth cohort of the Detroit Revitalization Fellows (DRF), a group of 19 mid-career professionals selected to participate in a two-year fellowship to help stimulate progress within Detroit’s civic, community and economic development landscape.
The fellowship works by matching each fellow with an organization working at the forefront of Detroit’s revitalization efforts. Fellows serve full time for two years in salaried positions while engaging in leadership development.

I have a personal connection to this program: Seven years ago, I packed everything I owned into my car and drove to Detroit—sight unseen—to join the first cohort of Detroit Revitalization Fellows. The experience was thrilling, grueling, and rewarding—a journey that many former fellows describe in spirited existential terms, and an achievement that some have compared to Army boot camp or finishing a marathon.

I was delighted when the DRF program invited me back to Detroit to facilitate a day-long session on strategic planning. The fellows had expressed interest in learning more about strategic planning and identifying ways to incorporate strategic planning concepts and tools into their daily work. And in support of the fellowship program’s philosophy of impact, the fellows had expressed interest in building regional collaboration among agencies—as well as understanding the collective challenges and impacts of their work.

While we had the opportunity to use a variety of my favorite techniques (including ORID focused conversations), my favorite part of the day was an activity I call a “collective SWOT.” For the uninitiated, SWOT stands for “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.” It is an evaluation tool commonly used by organizations conducting a strategic planning process. Because every fellow is employed at a different organization, the collective SWOT needed to capture strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats for multiple different types of organizations all-in-one. To achieve this, I employed Cardstorming, one of the most versatile and fun facilitation techniques I use. After demonstrating the technique, I enlisted a fellow to step in and complete the exercise using same facilitation process I did. My  volunteer co-facilitator did a fabulous job, even switching up the process on-the-fly to better suit the group’s style.

The outcome of this exercise was a collective list of each organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, organized into categories and themes that apply to all organizations in the Fellowship. The result provided a uniquely comprehensive view of all 17 organizations, highlighting issues and patterns relevant to both individual organizations and the collective group. For example, some strengths common to many organizations in the fellowship were their focus on equity, skill in advocating for their constituents/customers, and their ability to obtain resources. Should the group decide to delve deeper into some of the categories that showed up on both the positive and negative sides (such as “organizational culture”), this list can be a starting point.

My second favorite part of the day was the “Pipe Cleaner Creation Recognition Ceremony” which was designed and facilitated by one of the fellows (see below).

After spending a day with this group, I can say the fourth cohort of Detroit Revitalization Fellows includes some of the most thoughtful, insightful, self-aware, quick-witted, and talented professionals I’ve had the privilege to facilitate. I’m looking forward to our next meeting in January when I will be doing a two-day workshop on public engagement and meeting facilitation.

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