How to prepare for your first strategic planning day
In my earlier articles I described the advantages that mind mapping could bring to strategic planning in your organization. Now I will start looking in more detail at how to run a successful planning session with mind mapping software.
Just three key words can be used to sum up what any organization needs to do for a successful strategic planning day:
Preparation: Make sure the facilitator has the appropriate skills and experience, the appropriate technology, the venue will be available on the day of the session and the participants have been notified;
Program: Identify the key issues the planning day needs to address and develop a concise agenda for the day; and
Process: Run the planning day itself; hold brainstorming and other workshop sessions and collate and communicate the outcomes.
These are important regardless of the facilitation approach being used. But there are some specific issues to consider if your organization is planning to use mind mapping software. This applies especially in relation to meeting preparation, which I’ll consider in this article.
How to select an effective facilitator
In an ideal world, every organization would be able to afford a trained and skilled facilitator to run their planning sessions. In reality however, the rates for trained facilitators – and in particular those that have mind mapping skills – are well beyond the resources of many small organizations, especially NGOs and volunteer groups. This means that facilitation of planning sessions is done in-house, usually by someone on the organization’s board or management committee, a staff member or a volunteer.
There is nothing inherently wrong with in-house facilitation as long as the person doing the facilitating has the right skills, can perform objectively and is allowed to do so by the organization’s management. Many organizations do have people with the appropriate experience, even if they don’t think of themselves as facilitators. Project leaders, educators and counselors, for example, are likely to have skills relevant to facilitating.
I don’t want to spend too much time discussing facilitation in general but I will make a final comment about doing it in-house. I believe that it’s better if the organization president or CEO does NOT take on the facilitation role, even if they feel qualified to do so. Some staff members can feel very constrained and may not make a full contribution in this situation.
There are two factors specifically relating to mind mapping that can affect facilitation that you should be aware of:. First, the facilitator must have at least a basic understanding of the specific program to be used. If you are taking on the facilitation role but you haven’t used mind mapping software before, I’ll let you in on a big secret: once you understand the basic concepts, it isn’t very hard to master, providing you have enough time to prepare before the planning session. Around 20 or 30 hours’ practice over a month or two should give you enough experience.
Second, the facilitator needs to be able to type reasonably quickly, as this will replace writing on a whiteboard to record the planning session. The alternative is to nominate another person with typing experience to act as scribe, though this person also needs to understand the mind mapping program being used.
In this article and the rest of this series I will assume that the facilitator has at least a basic understanding of his or her mind mapping program, even if they haven’t used it previously to run a planning workshop.
Group sizes, room options and technology decisions
Most facilitators will consider the number of participants in determining how they will conduct the planning session. But an additional issue in using mind mapping software is ensuring that all participants in the workshop can see the monitor or projector screen clearly. This should influence the choice of technology to be used (see next section) and the room set-up. Round tables – common in many hotel and conference center venues – don’t work well, because some participants will always have their backs to the screen.
The number of participants will also influence whether the workshop needs to break up into several smaller groups. I’ll be talking mainly about smaller planning sessions, which usually don’t involve break-out groups. These are the easiest to manage with mind mapping software, but there are strategies to incorporate break-out sessions which I’ll discuss these in the final part of this series.
The differing backgrounds, skills and experience of the participants all need to be considered in preparing for any strategic planning workshop. I’ll deal with this in the next two articles, but in the context of preparing for a mind-mapped workshop it is helpful to know whether any participants have experience in using mind mapping software. This helps to determine how much will need to be explained to the group and is also useful in that these participants can help others feel more comfortable with the mind mapping process.
Equipment required to run the planning meeting
The equipment list to run a strategic planning workshop with mind mapping software is relatively simple. At the top of the list is a laptop or tablet with HDMI output to run the mind mapping program. This should be able to display the mind map on both its own screen and the external monitor/screen simultaneously. If possible the facilitator should also have access to a back-up laptop/tablet. An external keyboard and mouse are optional – they can be useful but are not essential.
Then there are several options for the screen. For very small groups a 24-27 inch standard HD computer monitor is a good choice but these are really only large enough for a maximum of four to five participants. A great alternative for larger groups of up to about eight people is a large screen (40″ minimum) full HD TV with an HDMI input. Larger groups could be managed with larger 50″ or 55″ monitors but for over about a dozen participants a data projector and screen will be the best alternative.
The facilitator will also need to be able to connect the laptop/tablet to the monitor/TV or projector. These facilities may be available if the venue has professional equipment. There are also a number of wireless and wi-fi options for making a connection, but I’m old-school when it comes to this. Purchasing a long (5 metre/15 foot) HDMI cable is a small investment to make to ensure that there will always be a reliable connection available.
Finally, there are two options to consider if the facilitator wants to distribute summaries during the session. This can be handled by having a printer available on the day or if there is a reliable Internet connection the facilitator can email these summaries and the planning day outcomes directly to the participants.
Mind mapping software options for strategic planning
I’m not going to recommend any specific mind mapping program from the wide range available, but there are some minimum software requirements.
First, the program needs to be easy to read when scaled up for display on a large screen. Adding topics, sub-topics and topic notes should be straightforward, as should facilities to edit and reorganize the map.
The program should also have some ability to either step through a map and/or to display a “show branch/topic alone” facility. This means that the facilitator can concentrate on a specific branch or even a single topic. The program also needs the capability to add icons, flags or tags to individual topics, which makes it easy to rank, label or differentiate topics. Many programs also offer a brainstorming capability which is useful, but not essential.
The other software requirements relate to what happens after the planning session. The program should be able to export to a variety of formats, especially those supported by any other key programs the organization uses (for example, Microsoft programs like Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Project). If you plan to use the mind mapping program as a project management tool, it will also need the ability to add task management features, such as priority, resource, percentage completed and start and end dates.
Finally, when it comes to the choice of platform, I am again “old school”. While web-based applications are maturing, I think organizations are safer in sticking with the more traditional computer-based programs (for example, iMindQ, MindManager, MindView and XMind), especially if they are running the session at an unfamiliar venue where there may be wi-fi or phone reception issues. In addition, some web-based applications don’t scale particularly well to a big screen. This is an issue which also affects some of the mind mapping programs available for tablets, which were designed primarily for individual use.
How to choose a venue for your planning session
Obviously if the organization has its own premises, it’s likely to have a meeting room that can be used, unless it has made a conscious decision to run its planning workshop away from the workplace.
The portability of mind mapping means that this can be done easily; a planning workshop can be run anywhere, as long as there is access to the appropriate technology. This is also a key advantage for smaller groups which may not have their own buildings as planning sessions can be run with mind mapping software in informal locations such as a group member’s lounge room, where the family TV screen can be turned into an effective display monitor.
Conversely, a larger group can hire a local hall or meeting room with suitable equipment; if this isn’t available, screens and data projectors can be borrowed or hired separately. Regardless of the venue or equipment used, the facilitator should consider doing a brief test run to make sure the technology works and everyone will be able see the screen.
Next: In the next part of this series I will describe how to set up the planning day program with mind mapping software.