Best Practices: Strategic Planning

This past week we attended the NASC’s 4S Summit. Now in its third year, the Summit is a best practice meeting where speakers present across four tracks – Service, Sales, Sponsorship, and finally, Strategy. The most common topic within the last of the four “S” themes is strategic planning.

As strategic planning for sports organizations accounts for more than 80% of our work at the Huddle Up Group, we are often asked to chime in on best practices for conducting a strategic planning process. While there is no perfect model for every organization or destination, there are several common themes that we believe are essential to any strategic planning process, in sports or otherwise. Here they are…..

  1. External Leadership – Engage an outside agency that has experience specific to organizations or destinations like yours. It is virtually impossible for someone inside the organization, or that has long-standing relationships with the key players, to effectively lead a strategic planning process. If the person(s) charged with leading such an effort are closely tied to the organization in question, it will be nearly impossible for them to be objective and to also pull in national best practices from similar organizations that are successful in this field.

  2. Inclusivity – Engage as many stakeholders are you can throughout the process. This can be through personal interviews, email surveys, focus groups, and/or town hall type meetings. One important tip here, don’t just talk to your big supporters, include the naysayers as well. If you can engage those that usually cast stones (aka “rock throwers”) you can get their feedback which makes them part of the process. It’s hard to criticize a project’s findings if you had your opinion heard.

  3. Be Open and Transparent – If the process has a set agenda from the start, it’s not really a strategic process at all. Be open to new ideas and change. Be transparent to the things you find when rocks start getting turned over. Avoiding issues will only continue to negatively impact the organization. Dealing with the tough issues within the process is a big part of what strategic planning is all about.

  4. Short and Long-Term Visions – A good strategic plan will offer recommendations for the near term and also a big picture vision for the future. You have to be able to improve the organization and its work tomorrow with the resources you have today (short term planning). You should also look to the future and have some stretch goals for where the organization can be with new resources, which includes three kinds of capital (financial, physical, and human). The plan should include blocking and tackling items to use right now, as well as home run goals for 3-5 years into the future.

  5. Be Specific on the How – The old saying “What gets measured gets done” applies here. Saying something like, “We will double our budget” without an actual pathway to do that is setting the team up for failure. Insert the “how” and a realistic “when” into the equation. “We will double our budget over the next five years by increasing partnership revenues by 25% and through the creation of a tourism improvement district which is supported by our hoteliers.” See the difference there? One is vague, the other is a set of tactical moves with a timeline attached to it.

  6. Checkpoints – High functioning organizations do more than hold a strategic planning session once every five years. They revisit the plan on a regular basis and update it when appropriate. Over the course of a year or two or five, some elements of the plan will materialize and some will become obsolete. So the plan has to be reviewed and updated in an ongoing manner. It is best to schedule these reviews as a standalone meeting with the key players, rather than putting it on a meeting agenda as just another item. The plan won’t get the focus it deserves if it’s lumped in with other pressing issues.


There are numerous ways to attack the strategic planning process. No matter what pathway you take, these six elements need to be present to give your organization a game plan for success. With that in mind, one parting note…..

Keep in mind that the process is about the organization and not the people, or any one person. If you keep the organization and the community it serves first, visioning the future becomes a much more collaborative and successful journey for all of the stakeholders involved.