The Challenge of Creating Actionable Plans

Burket-Blog-Web-05-2016As part of our work in our hometown of Pittsburgh, we have been digging into all of the plans that have been created over the past five years or so. So far, we’ve found around two-dozen plans, reports, or studies on all manner of community, workforce, and economic development topics. Of those, about five have well-articulated goals, actions, responsible parties, though the form and detail of those components varies from plan to plan. And even with detailed actions, the degree to which those plans are being implemented varies a great deal. Our experience in Pittsburgh is not unique – we see the same trend in the other places that we work. So why is it, that despite our best wishes and intentions, it is so hard to create actionable plans?

No one is demanding accountability… So we have to hold ourselves accountable

Though I’m sure they implore organizations to create an actionable plan, rarely do funders truly demand it. There are no claw-back provisions. Rarely do progress reports require direct stakeholder feedback or result in course changes. The media is not paying attention. Partners are busy running their own organizations.

Organizations need to create their own accountability. Steering Committees should be expected to reconvene annually and review progress against actual goals and metrics. Analysis that leads to course corrections is a positive step, i.e. not something to hide. Organizations should invite the media and their partners. Of course this takes time and effort and resources – those expectations should be made clear to the Steering Committee up front and co-chairs should be established to lead the effort.

The planning process isn’t designed for it… So we need to build an actionable process

A typical planning process lasts about six months. Though that’s enough time to come up with a lot of great ideas, it often doesn’t end up being enough time to fully explore their feasibility. Shopping ideas with funders, facilitating partnership conversations, and researching best practices don’t take a lot of money, but they do take time. Without that time, the resulting plan is full of half-baked ideas, which may or may not be implementable. And as a consultant myself, I have to admit that many consultants simply don’t facilitate a process that includes those detail-oriented steps.

When working with funders, boards, and consultants, it’s important to demand more time and a process that builds in feasibility analysis to ensure that the plans we create have ideas that have clear support, funding viability, and committed ownership.

No one’s in charge…. So we need to create ownership

Action starts when the plan is finished, and a plan needs a champion to jumpstart that action and keep it going. Two of the Pittsburgh plans that are seeing the most action are led by a single public agency (our Open Space Plan and our Plan for a Healthier Allegheny). Those trying to rally a consortium of partners to work together towards systemic problems face much bigger hurdles (for example Welcoming Pittsburgh or My Brother’s Keeper). Political leaders, civic leaders, foundations, and think tanks play an important role in calling attention to issues and convening stakeholders to develop a plan, but those types of entities are rarely the “doers”. Once the plan is done, partner organizations go back to implementing their own programs for which they are being funded.

If the organization leading the plan development does not have a staff person who is dedicated to seeing the plan through, then an implementation partner should be engaged as a co-owner to play that role. In recent years, the collective impact approach has been a popular way to create an ongoing structure for collaboration towards shared goals. Regardless of the approach, it needs to be someone’s job to help shepherd the implementation of actions and track results. This isn’t overhead; it’s action.

Are you doing an exceptional job at seeing your plan through? Let us know by sending a note to We love to learn about new examples and tactics for turning plans into action.