Strategic Planning – The Wikimedia Way!


Today, Wikimedia Australia has launched its strategic plan for the next three years for public comment and feedback.  In the greatest Wikimedia tradition, it’s also a plan that anyone can edit, at least if you have an account on our Wiki!  While I hope just looking at the plan can give people an idea of what we’re doing, I thought I’d also share my thoughts on the process that we went through to develop this plan, in the hope that other chapters can benefit from our experiences.

But first, you should read the draft plan!

Strategic Planning: It’s not just for large chapters anymore

The first thing I’d say is that strategic planning is not an exercise that can or should only be undertaken by large chapters or organisations.  Wikimedia Australia came to the conclusion that we needed to put our heads down and write a strategic plan about twelve hours after the beginning of the 2010/11 fundraiser, when it became evident that we were going to be successful beyond our wildest dreams, and that we’d have a lot more money than we planned to have.  Looking back, it would have been great if we had a strategic plan in place then, so that we could have hit the ground running and immediately known what we were going to do with all of that money.

The other great advantage to having a strategic plan in place is that it does provide a lot of focus on what the chapter should be doing, and provides a benchmark to see if you’re being successful or not.  My observation is that many chapters have lots of great ideas, but haven’t really thought about which ones they should prioritise and why.  Once you know what your priorities are and you’ve broken down the challenges into small, manageable and measurable chunks, it’s a lot easier to start working on that challenge, and also see if you’re succeeding or just spinning your wheels.

In summary, even chapters with modest resources should consider engaging in a strategic planning process.

Face to face

It’s obvious given the fact that Wikimedians are generally technologically savvy, and given the way that the initial idea of “an encyclopaedia that anyone can edit” exploded across the Internet without too much in the way of face-to-face meetings, that we’re pretty good at using tools such as talk pages, email, and blogs to communicate and get these things done.  However, we felt that we would get much more done by actually sitting together in the same room and working on the plan in real time.

In an Australian context, getting everyone into the same room is a pretty big challenge.  People needed to give up their entire weekends, take time off of work, and travel from all over the country to get to that room.  Clearly, there is a lot of time and expense involved in doing this.  However, I would not hesitate to recommend that the time and expense is worth it, and we got a lot more done in two days of face to face meetings than we got done in months of emailing.

In summary, get together and discuss things in person.  It is so much more productive, and so much easier to do things that way.

Cast your net wide

Another very important consideration is to make sure that your plan has stakeholder buy-in.  As an example of the dangers of not making this a priority, you only need to look at the strategic plan of every organisation that I’ve ever worked for (and I’ve worked in the non-profit, private and public sectors before).  Generally, the plan is developed by the senior management of the organisation, perhaps with the input of a few consultants with MBAs.  If employees, customers, or other “small” stakeholders are consulted, generally it’s either a token gesture or an afterthought.  The end result of this is that even in the unlikely event that the stakeholders know what’s in the strategic plan, then they don’t feel that they have had any “buy-in” and they don’t really feel compelled to see it through.

How did we address this problem in Wikimedia Australia?  First of all, our management committee decided to delegate the actual writing of the plan to a subcommittee made up of a variety of stakeholders.  Diversity of people and opinions was a very important consideration in assembling this group; we had members and non-members, men and women (actually, it was pointed out to me after assembling the subcommittee that women made up a majority.  This was not intentional, people were purely selected on merit, but it was a happy coincidence anyhow, given how traditionally male-dominated the Wikimedia movement is.), and most importantly both established editors and interested parties who were not traditional “Wikimedians”.  Having a diverse group forces you to challenge unproductive assumptions that you might have made, and discourages groupthink.  Of course, if everyone in such a diverse group agrees on a particular idea, it’s probably a good idea with a wide appeal.

Strategic Planning Group

What a cheery looking group!

Having a diverse subcommittee helps, but it’s not the be all and end all.  We were very determined that other stakeholders should have as much input into the plan as possible.  For this reason we used IdeaScale to solicit ideas before the workshop, and insisted on a long period after the draft was submitted for feedback and discussion.  Before being adopted, the plan must be ratified by all of the members of the organisation at the annual general meeting.  That way “ownership” of the plan is held by all of the members of the organisation, and not just the senior leaders.

The counterbalance to this is that if you have too many voices, you can quickly run into a situation where everybody is talking and nobody is getting heard, and no decision ends up being made.  For an example of this in action, check out pretty much any Request for Comment on English Wikipedia!  That’s why we kept the bulk of the drafting process in the hands of a seven-person subcommittee; any more and the room gets too noisy, any less and you risk leaving out important voices and stakeholder groups.

In summary, get as much input as you can without getting indecisive, and think outside the box when it comes to who you include in the process.

Read, read, and read

If you’re reading this, chances are that you’re not someone who’s experienced with developing strategic plans in a professional capacity.  Attempting to develop a workable plan without doing some research first would be like trying to assemble IKEA furniture without first looking at the instruction sheet.  I can freely admit that I’ve never had such a big role in developing a strategic plan before, and in order to prepare I did a lot of reading.  If you’re also new to this process, I would suggest the following:

  • There is this website called “Wikipedia”, and they have an article on the topic called “strategic planning”.  It’s not that great in English, but perhaps the other language versions are better.
  • Without a doubt the best book I read on the subject was “Strategic Planning for Public and Nonprofit Organizations”, by John M. Bryson.  While it is rather US-centric, the principles that Bryson enumerates, while they seem like common sense to me now, were very useful in getting my head around what was required.  Highly recommended.
  • There are a lot of fine videos on YouTube that deal with the subject, but two that I found particularly useful were “Common Strategic Planning Pitfalls” by Erica Olsen, and “What is Strategic Planning?” by Marla Johnson.

In conclusion, the great strategic planners know what they’re talking about, and if you’re going to be involved in formulating a plan, so should you.

Listen, listen, and listen

Okay, this is probably just an extension of the “cast your net wide” point above, but there is a lot of experience already in the movement about how to come up with a workable strategic plan.  We were able to tap the experience and expertise of the UK, French and German chapters by recording interviews with them about their experiences while planning, and looking at the issues that they were facing and how they were overcoming them.  We were then able to take that and apply it to our own situation.  The experience was invaluable and I’d highly recommend that any chapter looking to walk this road talks to other chapters first for pointers.

We were also really fortunate to be able to talk to the WMF as a part of our planning.  As someone mentioned during the workshop, they are the “ninety thousand pound gorilla” in the room for all of the chapters, and Wikimedia Australia considers them to be the most important single stakeholder that we interact with.  Getting their input and feedback is absolutely essential if you want to be successful.  We were very fortunate to be able to have a phone hook up with Philippe Beaudette to discuss in real time what we wanted to do, and what the WMF’s expectations were of what we should be doing.  Happily, the two were largely in sync.

It was also really helpful to know the WMF’s strategic plan back to front.  Even if you don’t want to take that as a template for your own agreement (and you shouldn’t necessarily do this, there are some WMF things that are not practical for a chapter to do, and some chapter things that are not practical for the WMF to do), it was a great starting point for us to look at what we might be able to do, and what we might be able to get WMF support for.  Every single one of the suggested strategic programme directions in our plan has an alignment to one or more of the WMF’s strategic directions, which is a good sign that we’re not going to come into any conflict over what we want to do.

Lastly, consider hiring a facilitator.  I was reluctant at first to do it because they can be expensive, rates generally start at AUD1000 a day, and include preparation time as well as face-to-face time, but I’m glad that the rest of the subcommittee twisted my arm and convinced me to do it.  Not only do they provide the essential service of keeping you on track and on topic, but a good facilitator can also help you draw out links and ideas that you never knew that you had.  If you can afford it, I’d definitely recommend getting one.

In summary, talk to as many people as you can about what you want to do, and seek as much advice as possible.

Be practical

It’s important that your strategic plan is also practical and that your goals are achievable.  It’s no use spending a lot of time and energy coming up with all of these great ideas if your chapter does not have the resources to make it happen.  There were a few ideas floated during our workshop that would be wonderful if we can make them happen, but simply are not achievable by our chapter by 2014.  You can keep them in the back of your mind, but your chapter and the movement as a whole will be a lot better served if you achieve realistic goals, rather than failing to reach unattainable goals.

The bottom line

No matter how prepared you are going into the strategic planning process, any document that you come up with will not be perfect.  I know that our members and the wider community will have improvements to make to what we have developed, and I’d be disappointed if they didn’t.  I’m also aware that not everyone will agree with the prioritisation and directions that we’ve chosen, but hopefully there’s a little something in there for everyone and people will be able to tolerate the bits that they’re not too fond of.

So the bottom line?  If you’re a Wikimedia chapter, you should be either engaged in a strategic planning process, or thinking about beginning a strategic planning process.  There is plenty of expertise and help around, and the movement as a whole will be served well if we are all working towards clear, enunciated goals.


2 Responses to “Strategic Planning – The Wikimedia Way!”

  1. 1 Anne Frazer

    A really good read Craig. Loved it.
    Thank you,

  1. 1 Chapter : Strategie auf australisch » lyzzy sucht das wunderland

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