York Region Strategic Plan: Putting Theory into Practice

Heather Beairsto
Organization Development

When I was tasked with leading the development of York Region’s 2011 to 2015 Strategic Plan, I sought out the Queen’s Industrial Relations Centre’s (IRC) Essentials of Organizational Strategy program. While I had completed components of organizational strategy process in the past – namely, organizational assessment and environmental scanning – I had no experience in the entire process and was interested to have some sense of theory and practice to rely on, as I undertook this project on behalf of the organization, Regional Council, and the residents of York Region. York Region is a confederation of nine municipalities, each having their own strategic plan. It was extremely important that the Region’s strategic plan aligned with our local municipalities; therefore, confidence in a thorough planning process was essential.

This article describes my experience with the IRC’s Organizational Strategy programming and the ways in which the theoretical and practical tools acquired in the programming helped to guide the development of York Region’s 2011 to 2015 Strategic Plan. I am hoping that my experience with formulating a strategic plan, with direction from the IRC’s programming, and Carol Beatty’s expertise, may prove to be a resource for other practitioners embarking on similar work. I begin by describing the four phases that guided the development of the Region’s strategic plan. Then, I describe some of the obstacles and challenges we encountered and my key learning. I close with a commentary on the IRC’s programming.

Four-Phase Development of the York Region’s 2011-2015 Strategic Plan

As part of my role in the Region’s 2011 to 2015 strategic plan, I led the business case for the plan. Successful approval of the plan was obtained from our Senior Management Team in late 2010, including the process and timelines to develop and complete the plan. The process approved by Senior Management included four-phases: Data Gathering, Strategic Direction Setting, Activity Planning, and Monitoring and Reporting.

Our first outing on a strategic plan was in 2009, with a two-year interim plan. That plan was strictly administrative in nature and used internally by staff to focus their performance planning to stay in line with our Council’s priorities. It was termed an “Administrative Plan” and served to incorporate certain fundamentals, such as sustainability, into our everyday language and practice across the organization, and began the collaboration necessary to tackle cross-cutting issues. We considered it a strong foundation for the 2011 to 2015 plan, a test for organizational readiness for this type of planning. Initially, the 2011 to 2015 plan was again to be inward-facing, but as the process gained momentum, that changed and we developed a fulsome, Council-engaged, and endorsed plan. I now describe the four-phase development of the strategic plan.

Phase I: Data Gathering

Our development phase included external and internal scanning. We looked at what was happening around and within the Region, how the findings might affect us positively and negatively over the coming years, and where we should concentrate our efforts. From the scans and Council feedback, we were able to identify quite clearly the areas of priority for the plan’s four-year timeframe. I am not sure if future years will be as easy to determine, but the scans this term were consistent across the board, and showed early internal and external alignment. Analysis from the scanning process set out six key areas that are in our final plan today; polished up and well-defined, they remain true to the initial analysis. This phase launched in February 2011 and was completed in mid-June 2011.

Phase II: Strategic Direction

Our Strategic Direction phase was settled fairly quickly with the addition of a seventh priority targeting Regional staff – a direct response to the findings of the internal organizational assessment in which staff voluntarily participated. We presented the findings to the Steering Committee at the end of June 2011 and targeted mid-July to bring the draft priority areas and objectives to Senior Management Team for their input. It was at this meeting that work began for the Activity Planning phase.

Phase III: Activity Planning

We entered the Activity Planning phase as a means of developing our “Indicators of Success” – how we intended to measure progress in each of the strategic areas. We assessed each of the strategic priority areas and determined what needed to take place in order to make progress. This helped to not only determine the actions required, but to also identify the “hubs” of activities that supported more than one area. Those “hubs” were looked at closely and, in turn, helped further focus and polish the strategic priority areas. From there, the Senior Management Team ratified the indicators of success they were willing to be measured against. By end of August 2011, we had a fully developed plan – structured, defined, and accountable; that solidly responded to the results of the environmental scanning done at the beginning of the process. The plan was approved by Regional Council on October 20, 2011.

Phase IV: Monitoring and Reporting

Upon endorsing the plan, Council also approved an annual reporting cycle. Each June, Council will receive a progress report. During these meetings, we will report on the plan’s progress and outlook, including any required amendments to the plan. We built the plan as a living document, so our monitoring and reporting process allows for adjustments, as required. Quarterly strategy review sessions have been set up with the Senior Management Team to monitor the in-year activities to ensure progress.

Obstacles and Challenges

The obstacles were minimal in developing this strategic plan. The benefit of having stuck our toe in the water in 2009 on a strategic plan helped. We also did a year’s worth of work with our Leaders group in 2010 that let us know that we had the organizational readiness for this type of collaborative planning process. Our Chief Administrative Officer encouraged us to build a wave of interest behind us to have the desired effect. Throughout 2010, we explored the concept of “integrated planning and budgeting” using the 4D process facilitated by Brenda Barker Scott. Together, we determined the three criteria necessary for us to be successful in integrated planning and budgeting: having strategic direction set in advance of the budget process (as opposed to during); having measures and targets to know where we’re going and whether we’re making progress; and, having decision-making ability along all lines of the organization. These criteria mesh completely with the concept and practice of strategic planning. With the support of the larger senior management group behind us, we moved forward to incorporate strategic planning into our organization, fitting it between our long-range planning (our draft vision, Vision2051, spans forty years) and our annual department and operational planning and budgeting.

While there were not, as noted, many obstacles to developing the strategic plan, some challenges did, however, arise regarding terminology. The Region has an established and award-winning reputation for long-range planning. Initially, it was a challenge to differentiate and include the long-range vision in the short-term plan. Many municipalities function with twenty to forty year plans, not unlike the Region. Strategic planning can, and does, cover a wide timeframe; a three to five year plan is included in the broader definition of strategic planning. We discovered the two can live in harmony. We chose to look at the desired state proposed in our long-range plan, and use it to help determine the course of action for this term of Council that would take us closer to that vision. We asked ourselves some fundamental questions: Are we doing today what we need to do to get there? What is happening today that is keeping us from getting there? What can, and should, we do about it? Thus, the initial challenge was quickly turned into a benefit, as it provided us the “big picture” to map the current day trends and issues and therefore determine a short-term focus.

Personal Learning

My first key learning point was the deeper understanding that the Region is a conglomerate. We have lines of business that most people wouldn’t put together: transit and public health, nurses and inspections, sewers and road systems, early childhood intervention and immigrant settlement programs, just to name a few. I learned a lot about the businesses we’re in.

As an organization, however, we learned that we need to work together on these very complex issues. We did an exercise with the Steering Committee that had them drawing lines of interrelation between the priority areas. Each of the seven priority areas is strongly linked to at least one of the other priority areas. There is a tight weave between all of the areas, and therefore a tight weave in how we will respond to the issues. The interplay between our areas is actually where our work lies. What had been typically been viewed as disparate lines of business, is now seen from an “interdisciplinary” approach to solve problems. This approach is new and refreshing for the Region, a powerful outcome of the strategic planning process.

My second key learning point is that the implementation of the plan is probably the trickiest part. The inner workings of the organization are changing and adapting to the new plan, the new way of thinking and working together. Our systems that have traditionally been separate and apart from one another are now moving and fusing at the right points. Using the facilitative and supportive nature of our Council, we’ve aligned the corporation with the goals expressed by our Regional Chair and Council. This alignment is captured through the Senior Management annual goals process, and that is now cascading down and across the organization. We’ve amended our performance management system to include mention and communication of the plan as a means of ensuring linkages are made between all levels of the organization in delivering on the priorities of our Council.

We are using, for the first time, a digital dashboard to house and track the plan. The “dash” requires a great deal of front-end work to delineate the milestones and load the dashboard so that we can accurately account for our progress on the plan and intervene on issues in a timely manner. We continue to have strong buy-in across the organization, and are spending the majority of our time in this phase, as we touch enshrined systems and processes, and create together the new way of working. A great deal of change management principles and practices are being employed, along with a high degree of face-to-face communications and assistance. Our next steps are to complete the data call for the dashboard to monitor 2012 actions. We are also preparing to deliver our first progress report to Council in June 2012.

Advice/Guidance for Practitioners

Based on my experience with developing the York Region’s strategic plan, I offer the following advice to any individuals in a similar role:

  • Strategic planning is a process. Everyone wants to see their issues highlighted and profiled; a strategic plan doesn’t work that way. A strategic plan tells you the areas that require dedicated and unwavering focus toward a particular end. It can be a challenge not to include everything in the plan. The organizational strategy process is not meant to focus on everything, but rather reveal where departments should put their focus.
  • Be inclusive and build support. Not every organization can take the time we did to determine organizational readiness; however, I strongly suggest having some investigation of this area before you embark on the process. And from there, choose your degree of collaboration. By the time we had the final plan before Council for approval, well over 800 staff had participated in one way or other in the development of the plan. We are an organization of approximately 2,800. That degree of staff participation gave both Senior Management and Council a high degree of confidence in what was in the plan and our ability to execute on the plan.

The IRC Experience

Prior to joining the IRC’s Essentials of Organizational Strategy program, I really didn’t know what to expect from the course; my learning objectives were fairly wide open. I was hoping for either theory or practice that I could take back and apply to the project. As well, I was looking for a bit of validation of what I had been doing thus far. By the time I came to the course, I was already three months into the project and was quite nervous that I might have to backtrack considerably.

The tools, resources, and learning that I took away from the IRC’s Essentials of Organizational Strategy program contributed significantly to the development of our plan. For example, the Five Question Process taught in the course is the backbone of our plan. When you can provide simplicity to the process, people will better engage. There are basic questions that need to be answered when developing a strategic plan: What’s happening around us? What business are we in and how are we doing? What is the deliberate path we need to take? How will we get there? How will we know we’ve arrived? Answering these questions will provide you with a solid, executable strategic plan. There were a couple of Steering Committee meetings where we had to remind the group that our role was to work the process, to ask the questions, whether people liked the answers or not. The book provided in the course, The Strategy Wall, was a wonderful resource. In general, the course and its takeaways ensured we left no stone unturned in the development of the plan, such as industry and customer focus. All the learning provided tremendous value and insight. I used the templates provided in the course as the practical means of executing the process.

Our plan also benefited from the program theory. The underlying purpose of a strategic plan is to differentiate yourself in some way from others like you and to leverage that difference to increase your value. By learning and understanding the concept of “value proposition” through the academic foundation portion of the course and the program’s simulation exercise, we were able to answer that fundamental question for our organization. We now have a better understanding of our value proposition, and our customer focus. York Region is one of many municipalities mandated by the province to absorb large amounts of population growth over the next ten, fifteen, twenty years. To grow communities, you have to build and that requires relying on third-party deliverers to get the infrastructure and services in place, as well as attracting businesses and industries to employ the population and contribute to the overall economic vitality of the Region. These growth municipalities are vying for many of the same contractors, services, businesses, and industries. It is good to understand those you are contending with, determine what sets you apart, and give those companies and investors confidence that they are doing business with a focused and aligned partner. All of this essential information is baked right into our plan.

The entire IRC program was relevant to me and our organization. The timing couldn’t have been better – right in the middle of developing the plan. The theory and the practical exercises both served their purpose, and having the real-life project on my hands helped transfer the learning. The simple and highly-relatable way in which the course is designed and taught helped me, and subsequently York Region, tremendously. In a time where government is coming further under the microscope to find and prove efficiencies and effectiveness, a strategic plan, its process and outcome, more than responds to that analysis, internally and externally. Our strategic plan is a commitment from our Council to our residents that we are doing the right things, at the right time.

Learning from the IRC’s programming will continue to be applicable and a solid resource for my work. For example, I will once again turn to The Strategy Wall in 2014, when we ramp up to develop the 2015 to 2019 strategic plan for the Region.

In closing, I thank you for the opportunity for me to relay my experience in developing York Region’s strategic plan. The IRC’s program helped York Region tremendously. The Five Question Process kept my team focused as we dealt with competing interests and issues. Understanding strategic planning as a process, and I think having learned this from a qualified and well-regarded institution’s programming, enabled the development team to sit in the process and accept whatever results were coming our way.

To read York Region’s 2011 to 2015 Strategic Plan and learn more about The Regional Municipality of York, please visit www.york.ca. For more information regarding organizational strategy, please consult Carol Beatty’s (2011) article, Demystifying Organizational Strategy.

About the Author

Heather Beairsto

Heather Beairsto is the Program Manager of Corporate Initiatives in the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer at the Regional Municipality of York in Newmarket, Ontario. Her main portfolio is strategic planning. She is responsible for leading the development, implementation, monitoring, and reporting of the strategic plan for the Region. She is also responsible for the Leaders program – an annual program that addresses leadership issues for approximately 100 of the Region’s senior-level staff. In addition to that work, Heather takes on special projects that deal with organizational performance and effectiveness. Heather has served with York Region since May 2005, after nearly seven years with the Ontario Public Service.

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